Recently I dug into what is in the public domain and what is not. Please do not use this post as evidence in your quest for such proof as I’m certainly no lawyer. I will borrow heavily from the Stanford University Libraries section on this topic.

But here are the facts as I can determine:

Public domain is mostly about date of publication.

  1. the copyright has expired
  2. the copyright owner failed to follow copyright renewal rules
  3. the copyright owner deliberately places it in the public domain,
  4. copyright law does not protect this type of work.

1. So first, anything written and copyrighted before 1924 is now in the public domain (every year this advances one more year until 1977. Any works published after that have different rules.)

2. Unless, during the years leading up to 1964, the copyright holder applied for renewal. So just because it was published before 1924 does not automatically make the work public domain but in all likelihood it is.

3. Deliberately stating in the book that it is dedicated to the public domain.

4. It can’t be copyrighted. In general, copyright is reserved for whole works, art, books, music but not titles etc.

That’s pretty straightforward but once you start applying those rules as I had to do recently, it gets muddy.

It’s all about the websites, well, mostly. First, most of the vital records I collected were published by the Maine Historical Society in conjunction with the state. Those were published under a law passed in 1921. The copyright reads “under the authority” of MHS, not “copyrighted by” in reality. I have asked MHS for clarification and so far no one has weighed in on this. I’m not sure how long these books were published but at least until 1933. So I’m assuming that all of these books are public domain.

But websites do have their policies and states ” You may not post content from this site on another website or on a computer network without our permission.” I have queried them on that because they have digitized versions of public domain materials and they then do not own the copyright. I got several responses referring me to pages and other contact forms and in the end, have no response from them.

The problem concerns digitized versions of public domain materials. Can someone like Family Search or a university library or even Google digitized such works and then claim some sort of ownership or control? There’s an extensive conversation about this very topic here:

Also very pertinent to the discussion is Bridgeman vs Corel (1999) where the ruling was “exact photographic copies of public domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality.” So no, someone cannot claim copyright ownership just because they digitized something. That court case is about images, not books but I suspect it applies to digitized books.

But digitizing books can take the material into a different realm and I don’t know this has been tested in court. I received a book digitized from the original and it also had bookmarks added so contained an accurate table of contents. A well done job but does that take that source out of originality? I don’t know for sure but I cannot imagine a court allowing something like to be newly copyrighted.

Of course, website can state what their site policies are. The question is can they control what actually happens. That’s a no, just in case you were wondering. All they can do is block someone from using their site but even that can usually be overcome. As a web designer, I know this stuff! I just wonder what and how expects to enforce compliance of their site policies as they sound a bit draconian to me. Also, a digital file may appear nearly identical to another so who knows how that digital file was created or where it came from.

As a web designer, writer and author of copyrighted books and websites, I’m fully aware I have no real solution to someone stealing my “stuff”. I simply don’t have the resources to try to go after someone and I can tell you from experience that many local judges just don’t have the knowledge to allow them to fairly oversee a proceeding with these type of issues. Technology is great but when you are the only one in the courtroom with actual knowledge and understanding of that technology, well, the outcome can be very dicey.

And genealogy itself comes with other issues – too many people think their family tree is private when vital records are never copyrighted and their tree is just a compilation of those vital records.

For most genealogy buffs, these issues never come up but when they do, it is a complicated world to navigate. I hope I’ve cleared up some questions and I then leave it up to you to determine whether you can do what you want with whatever you have. Good Luck! (and if anyone has any new information pertinent to this discussion, please let me know!)