Ownership of Records Accessed on Web Sites

[Update 14 September 2011: As a clarification to a couple of points, using direct quotes from Copyright Basics (PDF file), from the U. S. Copyright Office:

Page 2, under the heading of “Two General Principles,” states:

Mere ownership of a book, manuscript, painting, or any other copy or phonorecord does not give the possessor the copyright. The law provides that transfer of ownership of any material object that embodies a protected work does not of itself convey any rights in the copyright. [emphasis mine]

Page 3, under the heading of “What is Not Protected by Copyright?,”

Works consisting entirely of information that is common property and containing no original authorship (for example: standard calendars, height and weight charts, tape measures and rulers, and lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources) [emphasis mine]


I own an original copy of William Morrell Emery’s The Families of Perkins, Fairfield and King, published in 1907. It’s in the public domain, now, since no-one has renewed the copyright on it. I’ve also re-set and sold a few copies of it. The FamilySearch.org website says that because they also own a copy of it, I can’t use mine for anything other than personal use without their permission.

Such a claim by FamilySearch is utterly ridiculous. In fact, I should ask them if they would like the licensing rights as a source of the material, in effect allowing them to add their brand name to my reproduction of the book. I don’t need to, however, since a number of other websites also have the same title in their collections with no such restrictions. Do I ask the other sites if they would like to have their brand name as the source of the material? I could. In fact, putting the rights up for auction sounds like a good idea. It would bring in a bit of fees that would otherwise not be possible with a book such as this one is.

Since anyone and everyone can get reproductions of Emery’s book off the web from a number of sites, how can a corporation seek to enforce such a restrictive use policy? In FamilySearch’s case, they seek a copy of your work without paying for it and attempt to force you to mention them for something that’s there’s no need to mention, or even acknowledge them for.

Some commercial sites are the same way. Ancestry.com, for instance, with it’s new web publishing feature. They seek to get your data on their site, and their brand name attached to it, royalty and license fee free. Tamura Jones has an interesting take on this particular scheme.

One other item that I found interesting while I was researching this post is the claim by for-pay websites that they own and/or charge for public records. A new, recent example is Archives.com (not to be confused with the Internet Archive (archive.org), which has a lot of material claimed by the inappropriately named .com version; see in particular the genealogy collections). I took a look at .com version database listing and was appalled at how much of their material is public records, available for free from the official local, county, or state website where it originated. The existence of such a redundant, let alone a for-pay, site is incomprehensible. Why is it that Archives.com seeks to duplicate the entire set of U. S. Census records when there are already several well-established, reasonably correct collections of these public records on other sites? For free, I might add.

By using a judicious search strategy and reading the usage policies of the websites you use, you can often find the best material for free and with no irrational restrictions on it use.