Today’s post about US Copyright for Genealogists helps researchers like you with copyright concepts for your family history research.

Copyright Resources

Copyright for GenealogistsCopyright law in the United States is as old as the country itself and is a complex topic. For genealogists, a basic understanding of copyright is valuable, as we negotiate our way through different resources in the course of our research.

Stanford University has a useful overview entitled Copyright 101 available at this link.

Here is a basic overview I wrote in my co-authored textbook, Libraries in the Information Age,

Copyright is based in the U.S. Constitution:

“Congress shall have the power to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, U.S. Constitution)

Copyright therefore balances the “exclusive rights” of the creators with the desire to “promote progress” in the United States. Creator(s) are granted the “exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, publicly perform, and publicly display their works, and to make ‘derivative works’ (such as translations and adaptations) based on their works.

Copyright law covers creative works such as books, movies, music, photographs, poetry, plays, paintings, sculpture, architecture, websites, blogs, and software code. A work is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in a ‘tangible medium of expression’ — whether by writing it down, recording it, pressing the shutter button, hitting “save,” etc. Neither a copyright notice nor registration is required for copyright protection.”

Even though the concept of intellectual property law has existed for hundreds of years, the phrase itself did not appear in the seminal Blacks Law Dictionary until 1999:

“A category of intangible rights protecting commercially valuable products of the human intellect. The category comprises primarily trademark, copyright, and patent rights, but also includes trade-secret rights, publicity rights, moral rights, and rights against unfair competition.”

US Copyright for Genealogists

There is no better source on this topic than the Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell. She provides this excellent article, “Copyright Basics,” at

For simple and straightforward information, archivist Peter Hirtle has put together a clear and helpful chart on this complex topic, available here.

And for more Sassy Jane posts about copyright and genealogy, click here.