Copyright and the Oral Interview

25 Jan 2014

One of the great genealogy tools has always been interviews with individuals. In times past these interviews were done on paper; either by an in-person interview with the interviewer recording responses, or by correspondence with the subject penning his responses.


Once recorders became widespread for consumers in the mid-twentieth century, oral interviews became very common. Armed with tape recorders, genealogists set out to record the stories of family members in their own stories before they were lost forever.

With the coming of consumer video recorders  in the 1980s, interviews took on a different angle. Now we could easily record their faces while they were being taped. This vastly increased prep time, as people were now concerned with their appearance.

The technology era has made recording and sharing such interviews even easier. Cameras and video recorders in our phones make it very simple and easy to create interviews with our family members.

The important thing is to ask every subject to sign a form giving you permission to use the recording any way you like. If you do not do that, you are very limited as to what you can do. You can use it for your own purposes, but sharing it, putting it online, or selling it in any way would not be allowed.

The agreement need not be extraordinarily complex. You must give the. Interview subject something in exchange for their agreement. This is called consideration. The consideration can be anything. It can be as simple as $1 or “love and affection.” Or it could be a larger financial amount. The exact form of the consideration does not need to be enumerated in the agreement.

Be certain that the agreement gives you all the rights you need to do whatever you wish with the recording. Most people will be fine with this. Some may require that you submit the final format to them for approval. Others may require you wait until after their death to release it.

Get a lawyer’s assistance to create a general document that you can use over and over again. If you have already conducted interviews without a signed document, go back and ask the subjects to sign a copyright agreement.

If the subjects of past interviews are deceased, your safest bet is to have their heirs sign the agreement. All of the the heirs. Because the interview subjects’ words are copyrightable, you must get permission to use them.