Copyrights & Wrongs


This article first appeared in the March 1997 issue of the Journal of Online Genealogy


Web browser technology makes it easy to view and copy the underlying elements of Web pages. This article explores the copyright ramifications of copying and re-using the text, graphics, and source code of genealogy Web pages.


By Mark Howells

Please note that this article was originally written in March, 1997. Due to it's advanced age in "web years", some links mentioned are no longer functional and some sites have had their design and/or contents changed since the article was originally written.


"O what a tangled web we weave,..."

Sir Walter Scott's words have an interesting new twist with the advent of the World Wide Web. A very tangled Web is being woven by genealogists across the planet as we display our own research and host locality-specific sites to aid others. The number of genealogy-related pages on the World Wide Web now greatly exceeds 10,000 individual sites. The number of total Web pages which comprise those sites is much greater still. There is no end in sight for the continued rapid expansion of genealogy-related pages as hundreds of new pages come online every month.

The breadth and depth of information which these pages provide is mind-boggling. Here are just a few quick examples:

Do you have Dutch ancestors from the 18th Century who traded in Cochin, India? Check out the listing of surnames found in the baptism and marriage records of the Dutch Church of Cochin (http://www.telebyte.nl/~dessa/cochin.htm) from 1751 to 1804.

Need to find the neighbors of your Norwegian ancestor in the early 1800s for a group migration study? The 1801 Census of Norway (http://www.uib.no/hi/1801page.html) is searchable online.

Want to know how to use the Ship's Passenger Lists on microfilm at the U.S. National Archives? Visit the National Archives' Immigrant and Passenger Arrivals microfilm catalog (http://www.nara.gov/publications/microfilm/immigrant/immpass.html) to learn both what's on film and the nature of the records themselves.

Truly, the World Wide Web is a genealogy library which never closes.

Of course, what makes the Web so powerful is the ability to create links between different pages. These links and cross links give the Web its name and certainly contribute to the tangled nature of the Internet. A common problem in using the Web for genealogy is spending several hours researching then finding that while you started out looking for Dutch traders in India, you wound up on the Norwegian census page. Thank heavens for the BACK button!

"...When first we practice to deceive!"

The plethora of genealogy Web sites has led to a problem - some people are copying the Web pages of others either in part or in whole. Copying text, graphics, and source code is by no means limited to online genealogy. It is a problem faced by the World Wide Web community as a whole. When you copy verbatim the elements of another person's Web page without their permission, you have stolen intellectual property from that person. There can be legal ramifications for such theft.

As someone who watches the daily behind-the-scenes workings of a major genealogy Web site, I have seen first hand the problems of having your Web pages copied. I have seen original graphics, text, and source code repeatedly copied and placed on other Web pages without permission. These are not a few isolated incidents but has happened dozens of times and continues to happen. It has even been done by several high profile individuals in the online genealogy community. Such individuals in particular should have known better than to steal from others.

Most genealogists are very generous people when it comes to telling others about what we've found and we want to share such information with each other. Voluntary sharing is the grease that keeps the wheels of online genealogy lubricated. However, involuntary sharing does not encourage an open exchange of genealogical information. If you don't ask permission to copy a Web page element from someone first, you may be violating their copyright and stealing their property.

Copyright law

Contrary to a common misconception, material placed on the World Wide Web is covered by international copyright treaties and the copyright law. The graphics, text, and source code found on the Web are not in the public domain simply because they are on the Web.

Copyright laws protect almost any original expression or work when it is fixed in a tangible form. An original Web page which you create is copyright protected the moment it is saved to disk on your hard drive. A copyright provides the creator of a work with the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, broadcast, transmit, and adapt the work into another form. Also, the creator of the work has the exclusive privilege of transferring these rights to others. The following are some pointers on Web-related copyright issues. The U.S. Copyright Office also has an excellent Web primer on Copyright Basics (http://www.loc.gov/copyright/circs/circ1.html).

In the United States, all original works are covered by copyright protection upon creation. Web pages are included in the definition of an original work. It is not necessary for a Web page to display a copyright symbol (©) or a copyright notice to be protected. The best discussion of this aspect of copyright law can be found at 10 Big Myths about copyright explained (http://www.clari.net/brad/copymyths.html).

Graphics and other multi-media elements of a Web page are protected by copyright unless they are clearly marked as being in the public domain. This should be fairly obvious since graphic images or design elements were copyright-protected long before the invention of the computer. Even displaying images on your page by linking to the actual image on another Web page can violate copyright. This interesting Internet-twist in copyright law is more fully discussed at "May I use images from the Web sites of others?" as part of the Web Law FAQ (http://www.patents.com/weblaw.sht).

Links can be protected by copyright

While an expression is protected by copyright, a fact is not. Your home address and phone number are facts which can not be copyright protected. A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a Web page is, like an address, a fact. So, for example, the URL of the main page of the Cyndi's List - http://www.CyndisList.com/ - is not protected by copyright.

What many people fail to understand is that there is more to a hypertext link than just the URL. A simple hypertext link to the URL for Cyndi's List would be coded like this in a Web page's source code:

<a href="http://www.CyndisList.com/">http://www.CyndisList.com/</a>

and is displayed by a Web browser like this:

http://www.CyndisList.com/

The above example is a fact. Adding the title of the Web site in the anchor text portion of URL is coded thusly:

<a href="http://www.CyndisList.com/">Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet</a>

and is displayed by a Web browser like this:

Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet

Again, this is a fact since it states the title of the Web page. Copyright to the Cyndi's List title is owned by Cyndi Howells.

Now, if I add some original descriptive text to the same URL to jazz it up a bit, coding it like this:

<a href="http://www.CyndisList.com/">Absolutely the BEST source for online genealogy</a>
 - This is a MUST BOOKMARK site!

it then appears like this:

Absolutely the BEST source for online genealogy - This is a MUST BOOKMARK site!

The copyright situation has now changed. I am now the copyright holder of all of the descriptive text associated with last hypertext link shown above. Legally, you must obtain my permission to use the words "Absolutely the BEST source for online genealogy" and " - This is a MUST BOOKMARK site!" when used in association with the Cyndi's List URL. I invented and wrote those words. They are not part of the URL nor are they part of the title of the Web page being described. While they are obviously indisputable, the statements themselves are not facts.

By indiscriminately copying the underlying source code for hypertext links from other genealogists' Web pages, you could violate their copyright if they have used original anchor text and original descriptive text in their links.

Lists of links are protected

Organized lists of links to other Web pages are protected under copyright as a compilation work. Large lists such as ROOTS-L Resources: United States Resources (http://www.rootsweb.com/roots-l/usa.html) and Cyndi's List of Genealogy Sites on the Internet are protected under copyright as compilations. The hard work and long hours of finding, categorizing, describing, and coding the links appearing on these large link lists produce an original compilation work. These original works are copyright protected. Source code from these and other compilation sites keeps appearing in the online genealogy community. To add insult to injury, some of the pages which contain stolen source code often claim copyright protection themselves! See the discussion of Link Lists at The Copyright Website (http://www.benedict.com/) for more information on compilation copyright.

Think before you copy!

Penalties for copyright infringement can be severe and the copyright holder can obtain monetary damages of up to $100,000. The best way to stay safely out of the legal system is to educate yourself with copyright information such as that found at Avoiding Suit from the Copyright on the Internet page (http://www.FPLC.edu/tfield/copyNet.htm).

Always ask permission from the owner or author of a Web page before you copy anything from the Internet. Usually, you'll wind up flattering the person you're asking. Genealogists are great sharers of information and this generosity often extends to their Web pages.

For those people who have copied or were planning to copy directly from existing Web sites, I have a simple suggestion. Rather than re-create online information which already exists, use your time more productively by hosting new genealogical content that hasn't been seen on the Web before. Put up the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the cemeteries and funeral homes in your area. Host your local genealogy society's Web site. Transcribe a piece of a census. Give us the tricks you've learn about obtaining vital records in your locality. Do something that benefits the entire online genealogy community rather than just re-hashing what's already out there.

If you really admire a certain Web page's content, maximize the power of the World Wide Web and create a link to that Web site. Don't waste your time copying other Web pages. Besides doing the right thing, you will be respecting the hard work of that page owner.


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Copyrights & Wrongs
Created & maintained by Mark Howells.
For re-publication information about this article, please send email to markhow@oz.net
Updated January 16, 1999
Copyright © 1997 - 1999 by Mark Howells