What Can I Legally Copy?
9/28/2009
You've got questions about discovering, preserving and celebrating your family history; our experts have the answers.
Q: I have some questions after reading "Copyrights and Wrongs" (Now What?, February 2001). I have been doing family research for several years and with the onset of the Internet, I correspond with several other researchers. We send photos back and forth and other documents. One of the other researchers opened a private family Web site at MyFamily.com, and we've posted photos, death certificates, marriage licenses and other documents on this site. Is that wrong or illegal? We don't want to get in trouble.

I am aware that photos cannot be reproduced if they are stamped "Do Not Copy" and if you want copies, you have to have written permission from the photographer. But I didn't know if we could legally make copies of death and marriage certificates or any other documents.

A: Public documents (deeds, marriage licenses, death certificates, etc.) are generally in the "public domain" and as such, anyone can copy them without permission or restriction. The only issues that may arise would be the privacy rights of the individuals named in the documents. These rights vary by state. Also, do not think that because a photo does not contain a restrictive legend you can copy it. Copyright law governs.

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