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If Genealogy is Online, Does That Mean It’s In the Public Domain?

There are many different types of genealogy records available online these days – some are public domain or free genealogy records while others are copyrighted and protected genealogy records.  Just because something is available online, does not make it available for free use in the public domain.  Many people erroneously put copyrighted material on their websites, thinking that it is in the public domain and therefore acceptable to use.

So, what can you use from the online genealogy records that you find?  And, how will you know if something is in the public domain or not?  Here are three simple guidelines to follow when doing a genealogy search online.

  1. Know where your material originates from.  If you find a story about someone from the mid-1800s written online, do your research and determine if the author has copyrighted that story or not.  Additionally, if there are photocopied pages (or text from original works that are offline) available, look at the original source to determine the copyright status.

  2. Understand that facts cannot be copyrighted and are therefore automatically in the public domain.  Genealogy records often contain many facts, and even if the source website or book is copyrighted, the facts are not.  For example, if a copyrighted book states that a person was born in this town on this date, those facts are in the public domain and can be used for your genealogy search.  However, the format for conveying those facts can be copyrighted (for example, the sentence containing the facts.)

  3. If you are not sure if a genealogy search turns up public domain or copyrighted information, consult a copyright attorney for clarification.