There has been a tremendous amount of discussion on the genealogy blogs lately about copyright. Part of this has been precipitated by greater awareness of the issue, as well as an ongoing legal action regarding a potential copyright violation appropriating information from a well-used genealogy website.
Copyright is a very serious issue, and one that all genealogists should be aware of. As researchers, it is critically important to cite your sources for information. This is even more important when you use text that someone else has already created. Quotation marks and references to the source are essential if you don’t want a lawsuit on your hands.
In addition to copyright, however, there are also ethical considerations. Appropriating someone else’s ideas may not be illegal, but it can certainly be unethical. At the very least, it can say a great deal about your character.
If someone tells you they are working on something, don’t pick it up and run away with it and claim the work as your own. If it is a subject you know a great deal about, consider a collaboration. Or, if you have already been working on the same idea and are further along, you at least owe the person a conversation about it.
Now sometimes a number of people come up with similar ideas at the same time. Different researchers, for example, might come across the same clue and start researching on their own with the intent of publishing an article or book. This is an unfortunately fact of life, and if nobody knows you are working on it, you can’t blame someone else if they found the solution and published before you.
As part of the research and writing process, we look for previously published information. This search usually reveals whether something is already in print. Thus you can see whether you have anything new to contribute to the conversation while referencing the previously published information.
On occasion, it may be possible to miss something. This happened to me recently in preparing an article. A colleague did a slightly different search on a CD version of the PERSI database and found an article published 50 years ago that I had not found. Examination of that piece allowed me to see that the original author did not follow the entire chain of evidence on all individuals named in the document, and left several identifications out, allowing me to continue working on my own article.
If, however, you discover that you have published something that is almost identical to someone else’s work, it behooves you to make a reference to that work, even if it is after the fact. The is very easy for electronic publications, such as blogs and websites, where changes can easily be made. Scholarly journals and magazines publish errata and corrections all the time.
Acknowledging that someone else has done similar work shows that you are an ethical researcher and author. We all miss things and make mistakes. Acknowledging them will enhance, not detract, from our reputations. And we will all be the better for it.