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The Law and Genealogy

Genealogists may be confronted by certain legal issues and safety factors in the gathering of family history information.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 668 (approx.)
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Recently our genealogical group had a visiting new lawyer come to speak to us. While he was not versed in the ins and outs of genealogy, he did have some general concepts as to how to approach the law. There were three areas which seemed the most important to genealogy: 1) copyright laws, 2) identity fraud 3) and the Freedom of Information Act.

Copyright Laws

Copyrighting your genealogical data is not very important in the early stages of collecting information. For the most part, data you acquire from various public sources are not protected. Often as genealogists, the data we delve into has been duplicated several times over and the original source has long been obscured. In some ways copyright concerns bleed into the privacy laws when you are dealing with publicizing information about living family members who may not want data about them sent out to the general public. It is always a good idea to get permission from family members before you post information about them on the Web or in print. Copyright laws are extensive, but mainly the law boils down to a couple simple rules for a genealogist. Do not copy large portion of another's work, unless you place quotation marks around passage and cite the source the material came from. Just remember if you are citing another's idea, then credit it to the other -- if it is your own, original idea, you don't have to. The United State Copyright Office web site has more information, including a FAQ section.

Identity Fraud

As genealogists we have to be particularly aware of the information we post on the Internet and publish in books. While unscrupulous people are digging through garbage cans and tracing vital data online in order to steal money, we have to make sure we do not inadvertently assist their sick efforts. Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States and has been for the last seven years. It has cost businesses 49 billion dollars during last year alone. You should never post a living person's social security number or other vital information. For more information about identity fraud and how to combat it, go to The Federal Trade Commission web site.

Freedom of Information Act

The right to privacy and government officials creating barriers to databases often collide with the genealogist seeking information concerning family members. This is further complicated after the September 11 attack. One example is RootsWeb deciding to limit access to California birth records which they had purchased. Pressure from the California legislature, due to cries of concern over privacy, caused RootsWeb to back away from their own investment. At the same time some data such as birth certificates only requires a signature testifying you are a relative of the individual in order to get a copy. It would be too easy for someone to pose as a relative in order to gain an identity for criminal means.

Fortunately, most genealogical research does not require access to such sensitive information. However, you should understand that private record holders are not under the same regulations as government offices. Many have noticed the 72-year delay in the publication of the U. S. Census. The latest census that can be accessed is the 1930 census. The census database is covered by law and you will not be able to see 1940 census until 2012.

Tips from a Lawyer

To avoid road blocks, the lawyer addressing our group offered up the adage, "You collect more flies by using honey than vinegar." Ideally, you will never run into a belligerent clerk who lords it over a database to which you need access, but if you do, it's a good idea not to blow your cool. Most often, when you describe your project to the clerk and what you would like from his files, he may relax the restrictions for you. Just be sure to thank them for their efforts. A court room is the last place you want to settle a dispute over access to a record.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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