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Legal Primer on Public Domain Genealogy


Important Note: We are not lawyers, and this website does not provide legal advice. The purpose of this article is to provide a general guide, written by non-lawyers, attempting to answer some common basic questions about Public Domain Genealogy. For legal advice you must consult your attorney.

If you are researching your genealogy, it can often feel a little bit overwhelming when trying to figure out what information you can use and what you can’t. 

Free genealogy records, also known as public domain genealogy records, can really help fill out gaps in your current information, but can also take some time to locate.  When conducting your genealogy search, use these guidelines to help you avoid legal pitfalls and potential copyright infringement.

  • Make use of the information provided in government documents.  Anything produced by the government cannot be copyrighted and is available to use as a free genealogy record.  This includes birth, marriage, divorce, and death certificates as well as census data.


  • Keep in mind that facts cannot be copyrighted, and are therefore in the public domain once they are known.  For example, if you find a book containing the name and birth date of an ancestor, that information cannot be copyrighted.  However, the presentation or original use of the information can be (for example, if the book links your ancestor to someone else born the same day, that correlation can be copyrighted).


  • Always check to see if the material you are obtaining genealogy records from is copyrighted before using it.  However, also be aware that just because the book or other source is copyrighted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the contents are copyrighted.  For example, if you find a reprint of someone’s last will and testament in a book, the book itself might be copyrighted, but the will is in the public domain and can be used by you or anyone else (since it is a government record).