Who Owns the Research?

As a professional research company, questions sometimes come up regarding ownership of the results of our research findings. This is a great question, as well as an important one, even for non-professional researchers, because it deals with copyright law, which is often misunderstood.

A recent email query gave me the opportunity to address this vital aspect of genealogy. Here are some concepts I shared with my correspondent.

First, let’s establish that in a real sense, nobody really “owns” the results of research. In reality, research, particularly in genealogy, is, in large part, an accumulation of facts (such as birth dates, relationships, etc.) and facts cannot be owned.

However, U.S. copyright law protects the expression of those facts, and the current law grants copyright to the creator (writer) at the moment an expression is created in permanent, recorded form. Therefore, according to the law, any reports of someone’s research findings are automatically under copyright protection and that copyright is owned by the writer. So, it is the recorded expression of research results that is “owned.” Therefore, ProGenealogists owns the reports it produces for clients.

This is actually a great benefit to both our clients and our researchers. Because of this law, both the clients and researchers can rest assured that, since the report of the findings is protected by U.S. copyright law, others cannot legally change the report to meet their own desired outcomes. [Yes, believe it or not, such things have happened to even the most prominent professional genealogists.]

In addition, should a client choose to reproduce our report (with our permission), any readers can be confident that the conclusions are those of the researcher, and not the mistaken notions of another genealogist. Clients also know that, because of such protection, ProGenealogists and our researchers will stand behind the accuracy of our reports.

Contrary to some opinions, reports of research are not considered a “work made for hire” by the Copyright Law. Rather, the law has a very clear and narrow definition of such works, which excludes typical research reports.

Clients of ProGenealogists are further protected by our contractual commitment in following our Terms of Service, which grants a Limited Use License to clients to use the content we produce for personal or professional use. For our clients, we will virtually always grant the use of our report in a publication or website, in accordance with our Terms of Service. Other researchers may have similar terms. Our Privacy Policy offers further protection to our valued clients and site visitors.

But, one key point is that the actual findings, such as: John was born in 1824 as the son of David and Heidi, is a fact that is not “owned” by anyone and can therefore be used by anyone in any setting. However, credible genealogists (both professional and amateur) will want to cite the source that provides such information (via, for example, a footnote or similar reference). Citing a ProGenealogists® report is never a problem and is always encouraged, just as one would cite a book, tombstone or county deed book.

As with all good businesses, ProGenealogists always has the client’s best interests at heart and works hard to comply with all the legal and ethical requirements of our profession. This includes a proper understanding and application of copyright law.

[For more information on this important topic, see Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, Carmack's Guide to Copyright & Contracts (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2005), especially chapter 4: "Works for Hire"]

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Reader Comments

Thank you so much for raising this subject. As more an more amateur genealogists take to the Internet for research and to connect with other genealogists, we need to education them on copyright law. There is a perception that everything on The Net is free, which is not true – from photos to narratives about a family’s history.