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Legal and ethical issues: Copyright

It is important to bear in mind that Web publishing is subject to the same copyright restrictions as any other form of publishing: if you take material from a copyright source without permission, you are likely to be breaking the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act (1988) in the UK or the equivalent legislation elsewhere.[1]

Since, as an individual family historian, you're not gaining any financial advantage from the material, and are probably not causing financial loss to the copyright owner, you may well feel that it's very unfair that you should not be able to do so, but it's very unlikely that republishing something on the Web would count as "fair dealing", the only circumstances under which you do not need to seek permission.

You should always ask for permission to reproduce text if you are in any doubt about its copyright status. The same applies to logos, photographs or other scanned images.

Obviously, putting your family photographs on the Web is not a problem, but you are not going to be able to scan photographs from a recent book for your Web site without permission.

Recent legislation also protects the compilers of databases from "unfair extraction" - you can't simply extract material on your surname from a CD-ROM or the IGI and put it on your Web site without permission, though, of course, the facts that you have derived from these sources are not themselves protected by copyright.

You should also bear in mind that placing your own material on the Web could lead to others infringing your copyright. Of course this can happen with a book, too, but it's much easier with digital material.

There are two distinct dangers. There are a few people who will unscrupulously republish or distribute your copyright material without permission, sometimes even for profit. Secondly, not all users of the Internet are actually aware of current copyright law (which in the US, for example, has recently changed) and therefore copy material illegally though without any dishonest intent.

This means that you should be very cautious about putting your own material on the Web if you are in any way concerned about the use to which it may be put by others. If you have a substantial database, for example, it may be better to place just an index to it on-line, or provide access only via a search facility. This is particularly the case if you are a professional genealogist or a family history society and derive income from your data collections. On the other hand there's no point in being too cautious - if your site is devoid of information, there's no point in creating it, as no one will want to look at it anyway.


[1] Further guidance on copyright for genealogists can be found in David Hawgood’s article Copyright for Family Historians. The US Copyright Office has a Copyright Basics circular. Many of the copyright issues relating to the web are discussed in the Web Law FAQ.

[2] The 1996 WIPO COPYRIGHT TREATY.

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