Copyright can be very complicated. This page is an overview and not legal advice. You may need to do further research or get legal advice to get a conclusive legal answer to your own situation. Copyright law also changes over time so you need to check what is current.
What is Copyright?
Copyright refers to the set of rights automatically given to creators of original works (including anything you may personally create). Copyright gives the creator – writer, artist, photographer – a say in how their work can be used by others. It does not protect information, facts or ideas contained within the works but it does protect the format or manner in which these things are expressed.
Generally speaking, information contained within records such as birth certificates is not subject to copyright but the way it is laid out and presented is protected. Transcribing the information into, say, a Word document before sharing it would see you safe from breaching copyright law.
Your research is copyrighted in the format you distribute it in. However, the names and dates etc. contained within it are not copyrighted. So like the birth certificate above, if someone transcribes the information into their own research, they are not breaking copyright law.
The © does not need to be displayed for a work to be copyright protected. Copyright is automatically applied, you do not have to apply for it, it is inherent in an original work. You may only use copyrighted work if the copyright ownership is transferred to you, or you are given express permission by the owner or an exception applies.
Duration of Copyright
Duration of copyright licence varies depending on the work that is under copyright and the jurisdiction it lies within. For example: NZ copyright law differs slightly from UK law and both differ from US law. It is important that you familiarise yourself with the law relevant to the country in which you are using resources. When a copyright period ends the work can be freely used as it is now in the public domain.
More information on public domain can be obtained from DigitalNZ (part of the National Library of New Zealand).
Research vs Publishing
The main exception applicable for genealogists means you may copy a ‘fair’ portion of an original work, without first obtaining permission from the author/artist/musician, if you use the copy for research, or private study. The right of attribution should be applied.
However, if you intend to publish a family history, including on websites or a blog, you should get permission from the copyright holder and give an attribution to them.
Types of Copyright Licences
Since the Berne Convention of 1886 mandated several aspects of copyright law, there have been various types of copyright licence developed. Here is some further information on the two most common types of Copyright Licences that you're likely to come across while doing family history.
On some websites a statement regarding copyright refers to a creative commons licence (CCL). This is a licence that is applied to copyright protected work so it can be easily shared. A CCL tells you that you can use the work in any way you want with specified exceptions.
All CCLs carry the exception where you MUST attribute the work to the creator. Exceptions may also include not being able to use the work for commercial gain and/or you might not be able to modify the original (e.g. no cropping of images). You would source them like any other record - see the NZSG’s information on Sources for further information and templates on citing your sources.
If a website has a creative commons licence or the images on it do, you can usually click on the reference to the CCL to obtain more information.
Visit the Creative Commons website for more information.
Crown copyright is a type of copyright used by a number of Commonwealth governments providing special rules for government departments and state entities. There is no uniformity so again you need to be familiar with crown copyright applicable for the country producing the document.
Publications or material covered by crown copyright usually include a statement outlining how the government work may be used and any restrictions imposed. Often it will mean works may be freely used without seeking permission providing attribution is made including the owner (usually a ministry) and the source. The main documents you will have under Crown Copyright are Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates.
Visit the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand (IPONZ) website to find out more about Crown Copyright.
Right of Attribution
If you are given permission to use copyrighted work it is generally granted provided you identify the author or creator of the work, known as the right of attribution.
Creative Commons have some good examples on how to do it on their Best practices for attribution page. If you need help, try the Attribution Builder.
Use of Photographs
It is particularly important, for family historians, to clarify copyright requirements around the use of photographs. You do not own the copyright of a photo which is in your possession which you did not take. Copyright may still rest with the original photographer or the photograph may now be in the public domain. To help determine copyright status of photographs see the flow chart at DigitalNZ (note: each photo needs to be checked individually).
All copies (whether paper or digital) of documents, images, photos etc. are just that - copies. They have no new copyright. For example, if you scan an old family photograph, the scanned image has the same copyright as the original. If there is copyright on the image, you must get permission to use it and give the proper attribution. If there is no copyright on the original, there is no copyright on the copy. However, it is always nice to ask the person who has provided it if you can use it.
Family History Databases
You will note that many websites state they are not the owners of the content, but are licensed to provide it to you. This is why they will not correct online trees which have incorrect information on them.
They will often have details of the content owner on the search page that is specific to that set of records. Note that citing a source and attributing it are similar but have different purposes.
Links to International Copyright Information