Understanding Website Copyright Laws

Understanding Website Copyright Laws

Online sharing has become so common that many of us don't give much thought to who owns our photos or words once we share them online. However, when uploading images of ancestors or providing family history online, it's important to understand the copyright laws involved. Here's what you need to know.

Last week, we reported the news that the new website PeopleLegacy has been accused of appropriating large amounts of photos and data from Find A Grave, another free genealogy website. Find A Grave’s owner, Ancestry.com, has indicated it’s taking appropriate action.

Meanwhile, we support the good work—and the rights—of thousands of genealogists who share their own research, photos and other data online. Users should be able to share in good faith that it will be appreciated but not misappropriated. Whether you’re the one sharing or you want to use what others have posted, here’s the short answer—and the long answer—to the question, “Who owns my content when I post it on a genealogy website?”

Copyright basics for genealogists

Before we answer that question, it’s helpful to define a key term here: copyright. According to Sharon Debartolo Carmack, author of Carmack’s Guide to Copyright and Contracts, copyright is “the right to make and distribute copies of a work, to create adaptations or derivative works (such as making a painting from a photograph) and to perform or display the work. Only the copyright holder owns these rights, unless she transfers them to someone else. One way this can be done is by signing a contract to allow a magazine to publish her article. If someone wrongfully uses her material, she can sue.”

Most of us understand how and why copyright law protects, say, the author of a book against those who would steal its content and pass it off as their own. But how does this apply to the photos or other content you post online at a genealogy website?

Copyright on user-submitted content on genealogy websites

Find A Grave

Generally speaking, genealogy websites only want to you to post material you own—and according to their terms of service, you retain that ownership. Practically speaking (for them), this keeps websites from being liable if individual users violate copyright laws. For example, Find A Grave’s Terms of Service say, “You must submit only material which belongs to you (or of which you have the relevant permissions to submit) and which will not violate the property rights or other rights of other people or organizations.” By submitting content, you’re agreeing to abide by this statement.

It’s up to you to determine whether you own the content you want to post. Copyright protects different kinds of materials for specific periods of time. Also, your physical ownership of an old item doesn’t automatically mean you own the rights to it. Read this article about how to identify copyright holders and obtain permission.

Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com’s copyright policy makes it clear what rights Ancestry has regarding the photos and other items you submit: “Content which has been contributed to public areas of Ancestry sites listed above by users remains the property of the submitter or the original creator and we are a licensed distributor of such content” (emphasis added).

MyHeritage

Genealogy website MyHeritage.com expands on what it means to be a licensed distributor of your content in its Terms and Conditions: “By posting content on the Website, you grant us a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual and non-exclusive license to host, copy, post and distribute such content” (emphasis added).

The ways genealogy websites distribute your content vary by site. For example, at MyHeritage.com, users build individual family trees on their own family websites and invite other relatives to view them on an individual basis. Beyond that, users can set their trees (and whatever content is contained in them) to be private or publicly searchable and viewable to those who aren’t part of their family websites. Within this system, MyHeritage expects other users to respect content ownership: “Copying information or photos from other family sites without the permission of their owners is prohibited and members who do this are at risk of being banned from the Service at the discretion of MyHeritage.”

The MyHeritage terms do acknowledge that “inviting other members to your family site, or accepting their membership requests, will give these members access to the family site and they might copy parts of it.” Furthermore, once shared, content “may become accessible to all persons accessing the Website or any websites in the MyHeritage Website Group, depending on permission settings in your control.”

FamilySearch.org

Compare this model with the free, not-for-profit FamilySearch.org. There, users contribute research knowledge, images, and other data to a single, massive and totally public community tree. User-contributed content attached to the profiles of deceased individuals are viewable, downloadable and printable for personal, noncommercial use by others. The FamilySearch Terms of Use reflect its collaborative intent: “We may utilize Contributed Content, including any personal information of living individuals, that you submit for the purpose of collaborating and sharing with other individuals and organizations (including commercial genealogical organizations) in order, for example, to create a global common pedigree.”

How to maintain the content-sharing you want

As you can see by the comparison between these two sites, it’s important to always read a site’s terms of use and privacy policies:

Always read the user agreements carefully. Then, consider the level of privacy you want for your tree data, images and other materials you may upload. On the sites you already use, adjust your privacy settings to best reflect your level of comfort with sharing. If those sites can’t offer something you’re comfortable with, consider deleting your data.

Other users may not follow the rules

Wherever and however you choose to share your research data, you may still find site users not abiding by the rules. Some researchers believe that once material is posted on a genealogy website, it’s “fair game,” whatever any rules or laws may say to the contrary. If it’s important to you that researchers ask your permission to use your content, consider politely requesting that in the notes field of the item you upload.

Tips for abiding by the rules

To be sure you’re always respectful of the content others post, consider these rules of thumb. Copyright applies to creative and written works, such as a photo or document, but not to facts, according to Debartolo Carmack. Copyright also doesn’t apply to “government-created, genealogically useful documents including military service records, birth certificates, census schedules.” But it might apply to someone’s digital image of that document. To be safe, view and extract information from records posted by others. Cite the records. But ask permission before saving or downloading that image.

Finally, you’ll also want to consider privacy issues for your DNA data as well. Read this Q&A for expert information about DNA data ownership, terms of use by genetic genealogy companies, misuse of genetic information and more.


What is and what is not protected by copyright? What are your rights to your own genealogical discoveries? When do you need to ask someone’s permissions to reprint their work? Can you use genealogical information you find on the Internet? In this new book, you can find the answers to these and similar questions addressing all aspects of copyright law. Each chapter lays out a specific principle of copyright or contracts and then addresses the topic with situations specifically applicable to genealogists. Order your copy today!

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