Copyright and Copy Wrong

01 Nov 2012

It is astounding how some people think that they can do anything they like with anything they want on the Internet. It is all there for the taking and doing with as they will. Genealogists are among the worst violators.

Copyright Pirates

1906 copyright infringement notice, from Wikimedia Commons.

Many genealogists work hard to collect information and share it with others. For some, this means compiling research methodology. Others spend hours compiling talks or articles to teach others how to research. Others compile links to helpful websites or compile data to assist in ancestry research. Some of this work is made available for free and some is behind pay walls.

For some reason that is beyond me, there are those who feel that if they find something online they can just copy it and use it for themselves without giving any credit to the actual creator of the work, falsely representing themselves as the creator of the information.

Stealing is stealing, and copyright violation is copyright violation. Some of these people make minor changes in the original to try to make it their own. This does not change the fact that the work was stolen. The only proper way to do it is to create it yourself from scratch.

Sometimes genealogists are confused. The names of your family members, as well as dates and places of events are not copyrightable. HOWEVER, the way they are written up, which words are used, etc. IS copyrightable. So stealing someone’s GEDCOM file, adding it to your file, and presenting it as your own is a copyright violation. [Note: some people make GEDCOM files freely available for use and download. Depending on the circumstances, you may not be violating copyright if you use those. But you must carefully read the terms of service beforehand to know for certain.]

Just this week I have spoken with a couple of colleagues about a particularly insidious theft of their work. Someone copied a great deal of information from other websites, many free, made some minor changes, and placed it on a for-profit website that the person was creating. No acknowledgement of where the information came from was given. Unlike information that came from other sources, no attempt was made to license the information from these colleagues. These kind of violators are, in some ways, the worst. They acknowledge the rights some people have in their work while huge chunks of material stolen from others is being presented as original work.

Cyndi Howells of  Cyndi’s List has been a good friend of mine for many years. I am gobsmacked at the number of times I have heard her relate stories of people stealing links right off her site. Cyndi’s List was one of the sites that was hacked by the above-mentioned person. It has cost her three days of work to document and prove that her work had been stolen and work with a lawyer to issue a cease and desist order and to lay the legal foundation to protect her work. She has successfully defended her copyright for sixteen years, never losing a case.

The moral of the story is, play nice and obey the rules. Don’t steal other people’s work and present it as your own. You may regret it in more ways than one. If you violate someone’s copyright and they can prove the damages, it may prove financially costly. At the very least, your reputation will be left in tatters. Remember: don’t copy wrong, copyright!