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My Copyright Infringement

by Mike Goad

Iíve taken my genealogy information off Ancestry.com and Genealogy.com.  Did it today; just a little while ago.


Because I knew that there was information in the notes portion of my material that was the original expression of other people.  That means I was infringing upon their copyrights.

There was no consideration of copyright issues when their info was put in my files.  There was no pretense at having put it there under the principle of fair use.  I didnít have a clue about copyright when I did it.

With most of what I was infringing, there was also no source documentation, which, technically, meant that my work plagiarized the works of others. 

Completely unintentional, I assure you. 

I wasnít trying to claim the work as my own.

But, that doesnít really matter, because those who came and used the information from my material probably assumed that it was my information, and, if they were doing good source citation, cited me as the source if they used it.

So how did the information get into my material and why did I remove it from the internet? Whatís the big deal, any way?

How it got there

When I started out trying to find out about my ancestry, I didnít know anything about how to go about finding the information that I wanted.  So, being somewhat familiar with using a computer, one of the first things that I did was to get a genealogy program, Family Tree Maker. I think it was version 3.  It was a great help in getting a lot of information into my database in a short period of time, especially since the program came with CDs that had pedigrees of people related to me.

Donít get me wrong.  The Family Tree Maker genealogy program is a great tool that keeps getting better.  Itís just that I didnít really know what good genealogy was.

I became a collector of names.  I worked to build the number of ďrelativesĒ in my database.  I used the FTMís World Family Tree CDs to find files that I could import and I exchanged gedcoms with internet correspondents.  I even ďtypedĒ pedigrees directly into my database.

Today, that database has 17,587 individuals, many of them with at least some of their associated vital statistics, mostly with minimal or no source citation.  (I really hated that WFT citation, mostly because of the way it estimated dates, and deliberately deleted a large portion of those citations.)

From the perspective of copyright law, there is no issue with the 17,587 names and their associated statistics.  The names and the statistics are just facts, or presumed facts.  Facts cannot be protected by copyright, not even facts that are in error, because there is no original expression, no spark of creativity in a fact.

The rub from copyright law came with the narrative notes that got sucked up into my file from the files that I imported.  Hereís an example:

the farm adjoining my great grandfather'sÖ belonged to William Davis. before the war between the states, Mr. Davis had been a slave owner. there were two particular slaves, a woman and a man. the woman's name was------now pay attention to this----; Loweezy Creepeasy Tennessee Clementine Buckingham Magbe Davis. 

This is part of a narrative that was in a gedcom file shared by a distant relative.  It got imported by my Family Tree Maker program into my genealogy database with all of the names, dates and places that I was collecting.

So what the problem?  My relative had shared this with me, right? I should be able to use the information any way that I wanted to.

Well thatís only partially correct.

The ďinformation,Ē in the file, is public domain, free for anyone to use how ever they want.

The ďoriginal expressionĒ is there only for the reading.  I can use the underlying information, the facts, any way that I please, but most uses of the narrative, other than reading it, are reserved for the workís author, who is the owner of the copyright.

That includes publishing the work, or any portion of it.  And that is what I had done.  Imbedded in my work, and my collection of facts, was my distant cousinís original expression, without his permission, infringing on his copyright, whether he knew it or not.

Why I took it off

I have no idea how many other instances of infringement there are in my database.  The hardcopy printout of the material that I took offline would be well over 850 pages. 

Thatís why I took it offline.  Before it goes back online, if it ever does, all of the infringement will be removed.

Whatís the big deal?

Iíve learned a lot about copyright laws since the days I first got interested in genealogy and since I first went online.  Iíve had a website on copyright for several years now and have read and written a lot about copyright.

Currently, I am in the process of self-publishing a series of articles on copyright.  So the big deal is that, if Iím going to write about it, I have to live up to what Iím writing about.

While itís no defense, I have not posted any material to the places that I had my database reports in a couple of years, so there was no ďnewĒ infringement.  However, the internet, unlike conventional print media, is a continuous publication. As long as it is online, someone can open it, download it, and print it out.  So the infringement is continuous.

So why isnít my excerpt here from my cousinís writings a copyright infringement?  Because Iím using it as an example in commentary, which falls under the fair use provision of copyright law.


(blog posted 12/28/2005)

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© 2005, Michael Goad