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December 9, 2013

Monday Musings: Copyright and Plagiarism

Monday Musings: Copyright and Plagiarism
A rather lively discussion of Copyright went on yesterday in a Facebook group. Sadly it degenerated into a couple of participants engaging in name-calling and emotional tirades. But the topic is important and I have been thinking about it more this morning.

One the one side were those who insisted that if you put something online (a family tree, an article, a photo) you must be prepared for it to be taken and used without your permission. 

A few declared that if we don't want our work taken then don't put it online. Then there were those who mistakenly thought that as long as the item(s) taken were not being sold or used to make money in some way, it was okay.

Those groups are wrong. We should not simply shrug our shoulders and ignore copyright violations. Anything original online is immediately under copyright and deserves our protection. That's where education comes in. Many times people violate copyright because they truly do not understand how the internet works and what the copyright laws are. 

In response to the suggestion that if we don't want our work taken, don't put it online -  if we independent webmasters stopped putting articles, photos, and data collections online, all the free websites and blogs would quickly disappear. 

As for the misconception that as long as the stolen work is not being used to profit the person who took it without permission, it does not matter what the intent is. Taking published work without permission violates copyright.


There seemed to be confusion over copyright vs plagiarism vs fair use. Here are some definitions that were posted during the discussion yesterday

Definition of plagiarism: copying the work of someone else and publishing it as your own without permission and without crediting the work to the author. [Cyndi Ingle on ]

Definition of fair use: purposely gray area in copyright law. Fair use includes using something for purely educational purposes or for review or for satire. But the *amount* of something that can be copied and called fair use is purposely vague. It depends on a case by case basis. [Cyndi Ingle on]

and the definition of copyright from the Merriam-Webster dictionary

Copyrightthe exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something (as a literary, musical, or artistic work) 


Basically it means if I write and publish an article on my blog or my website, and you copy it without my permission and republish it elsewhere, you violated my copyright. It does not matter whether or not you gave attribution to me as the author, it's still a copyright violation. 

If you take a paragraph or a few sentences from my original article and use them in a new article you are writing that is fair use. But if you neglect to cite me as the original author of those words, it's plagiarism

How to Play Fair and Stay Out of Trouble

It's wise to always read a website's Terms of Use or Copyright Statement/Notice to find out what the restrictions (if any) are on items on that specific site. Big companies such as have very specific Terms of Use that must be followed by anyone using the site. Smaller websites, such as my Olive Tree Genealogy, usually have a Copyright Notice of some kind that explains what the restrictions are for copying items on the site.

Suggested Reading

Cyndi's List has quite a few links related to Copyright Laws and Issues at



ScotSue said...

Very useful definitions - thank you.

Andrea Lister said...

Thank you. I am too an advocate for copyright.

Copyright is violated by using information; not by profiting from it
Ignorance of the law does not make you exempt
Citing your source is no defence if the way in which you’ve used the work is not permitted under the Copyright Act

I have some thoughts on copyright on my blog.

CallieK said...

You've touch on a subject I often have conflicting thoughts about, especially when it comes to sharing on public sites. On one hand I have connected with many great and helpful people because of the info I post publicly. On the other, I see examples of misuse (for lack of a better word), that makes me want to yank everything down/mark it as private.

The one example that bothers me most is a distant relative who copied verbatim from things I have shared with her, and posted them as source citations. Things like conversations from message boards that she was not part of,it's a publicly accessible board so it's not really a transgression per say but I still found it odd.
In one case she posted an entire letter that was addressed to me- she even included the salutation! Needless to say I am much more cautious about what I share with her

The Dead Relative Collector said...

What a very important subject to discuss! And something people don't always think about.

I'm a huge advocate of copyrights! First of all, the idea of "stealing" information is just foreign to me and beyond my understanding!

I think in todays world of genealogy and "weekend warrior genealogists" who hop on and download a family tree... and voilà, have 'done' their family history... there is a lot more copy & pasting, downloading, linking, reposting, and failing to document, than there was years ago....due in part, to major changes in the way we research.

All genealogists need to remember to be respectful of information that belongs to another! The legal ramifications aside, it is basic good manners to communicate with a person and ask their permission to use something and give them due credit!

Jana Iverson Last said...


I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

Have a great weekend!

John Sparrow said...

Hi Jana
As a matter of interest, where on this site do you have your copyright info?

Lynne Carothers said...

John Sparrow - The copyright information is at the bottom of every page. Scroll down.

Larry said...

When I first started putting my research online I'd get really upset when I found people copying what I posted and not giving credit. Then I noticed how they would butcher the info, and thought, I don't want my name associated with that. Besides, they don't have the sources to prove it. So now, take my data, but don't source me.


Olive Tree Genealogy said...

Many of the comments have focused on family trees and the taking of info from those.

But the larger issue is content taken from websites and articles such as mine (and hundreds of other bloggers!) By "content" I don't mean family trees (although that is an important issue too)

I'm talking about an original article or data brought online at considerable expense, time and effort. I'm talking about entire websites or pages from websites. These are copyight and it is not okay to take them in violation of copyright

GeniAus said...

My personal policy with regards to sharing others' wwork is "When in doubt don't".