The blogs have been lighting up this week with stories about copyright violations and plagiarism. These issues have always been a problem, but the easy communication of the internet has exacerbated the issue, making it ever more easy to take the work of others and claim it for your own.
First, lets clear up some confusion. The facts concerning your ancestor are not copyrightable. Anyone can write about your ancestor and post information about their dates and places of birth, marriage, and death, and so on. But the words you use to put your ancestor into context are your work.
The same thing goes for research practices and methodology. There are many presenters, authors, and bloggers out there in the genealogy world. And genealogical resources are genealogical resources. There are only so many ideas about how to use a census. The census fields are the same. But each of us writes in a slightly different way about it. And our words belong to us, and others cannot use them without our permission.
It is permissible to use excerpts of another person’s work conditionally. It is important to set off the text so that it is clearly a quotation of someone else’s work. It is equally important to cite the source of the quote, including the author’s name and where it was published.
Failing to do this shows indicates to the world that you are well aware that what you are doing is wrong. It is probably illegal and most definitely unethical. It shows that you are not a person to be trusted and certainly not one who should ever be listened to.
For some reason we in the genealogical community have failed to do our part to protect ourselves and each other. Lawsuits are expensive, and quite often the unscrupulous person manages to escape punishment. But certainly we can do more to point out the problems when they occur.
If you suspect that someone is “borrowing” the words of others, do a little bit of checking. One easy way to see if someone is using the words of others that are already online is to use a search engine. Copy a stretch of text and do a search for it. The only exact hit should be the person whose work you read. If you get others in the top few hits that are word for word the same (or almost entirely word for word), a problem clearly exists.
The best way to deal with this problem is not to throw accusations around. Contact both authors and request an explanation as to why the wording is identical. Perhaps they collaborated on the piece, and agreed that each could use the wording in their work. Include the date and time that you viewed each piece, and if there is a date of publication, include that as well.
If plagiarism is uncovered, do your best to help the person or group who has been victimized. Be willing to back the victim up. If you believe that someone has plagiarized you, you might find some recourse at the Association of Professional Genealogists or the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Members of those organizations are bound by ethics agreements. Some people purposely do not join those groups specifically so they cannot be held accountable to the ethics agreements, so be especially wary of those types of individuals.
Most importantly, if you suspect plagiarism, don’t just sit idly by and do nothing. Talk to the people involved and bring it to peoples’ attention. But do not throw accusations around directly without proof. Working together this way, we can help keep the plagiarists and cheaters out of genealogy.