Lists & Copyright

@ 2001 Cath Trindle – Published in the CSGA newsletter – Vol 19 #7 July2001. Permission to copy this page is granted with inclusion of this permission notice.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a common list is excluded from copyright law. So, what comprises a list? The definition would include lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources. Such things as telephone directories and membership lists can not be copyrighted. But keep in mind that the courts, after the initial decision in 1991 Publications vs. Rural Telephone Service (499 US 340), have tended work with the genealogical community to cover projects whenever feasible

So, when does a list become more than a list? Anytime that there are creative additions to the list, those additions may be copyrighted. Annotations would fall into this category. Compilations of several lists might also result in a creative work through the process of selecting, arranging, and explaining the original data. This can include reading old handwriting and creating an index. Abstractions can also be considered a creative rendering of material that might not regularly be copyrighted

Even if a list material does not meet the requirements to be copyrighted, the actual publication might. In other words, you might be able to retype the list, but it would be imprudent to photocopy and publish the list since the layout itself might well be considered creative.

The use of a list might more often require your ethical consideration. How would you feel if you put together this list and someone else printed or posted it without your consent? Creation of a paper or computerized index takes a lot of time. So even if it is legal to copy the list is it really ethical. It is easy to link to a list on the internet, which allows the credit for it to remain with the creator. If you would like to use just a small part of their creation, why not ask and don’t forget to include a “Thank You” for their cooperation.

Also in the “ethics” category would be the question, “Would the posting or printing of this list intrude on the privacy of other individuals?” Ask yourself the question, would I want to be on this list? Would my relatives, my friends? If they wouldn’t then you have your answer, the use of the list is probably not ethical.

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