Lists, Recipes and Genealogies – Copyright Law

Thank you “Cyndin” .  In a comment to “Great-Grandma’s Cherry Pie”  she  correctly points out that lists are not protected by copyright.

The US Copyright Website states “Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. Nor does it protect other mere listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions. Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration, for example—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook.”

Only original works of authorship are protected by copyright. “Original” means that an author produced a work by his or her own intellectual effort instead of copying it from an existing work.

So, we come to the question, what makes a recipe subject to copyright?  The definition above gives the answer.  Most recipes have directions, descriptions of how to use that list of ingredients, explanations of the process, pictures of the final result, and the best ones give a little bit of the history of the recipe as well.  So the mere ingredients of the Cherry Pie would not be subject to copyright but the written description of the process to create it might be.  The more creative the telling of the recipe, such as my Mother’s Spamburgers (complete with my sister’s fantastic art work) the more likelihood copyright applies.

The Copyright Office goes on to state that if you want to keep a recipe secret you probably shouldn’t publish it or file a copy with the Copyright Office.

So…….in a sense recipes are like genealogies.  Our basic family group sheet is just a list of facts.  Births, marriages, deaths, census listings, military service, no matter which fact it is not subject to copyright law.  What makes a genealogy subject to copyright?  The descriptions, the explanations, the process of combining facts to make a whole, the thought process used to compile the families.

How often have you heard, “I shared my genealogy and they put it online?”  While there might be some ethical problems with this, it is usually not a copyright issue.  Unless they use “your stories” and include your thought process in making connections they are only posting facts.  Like the recipes, if you want to keep it secret you might not want to share.

Be creative.  Turn your genealogy into a wonderful story and you will have copyright protection for your work.

But here’s one last thought….a shared recipe resulted in a better Cherry Pie.  A shared genealogy might well do the same.  You might find new collateral family and they may lead you back to earlier generations, or even better those new found relatives might have stories that they are willing to share with you.



Filed under Copyright, Ethics, Genealogy, Laws and Legal Decisions

2 responses to “Lists, Recipes and Genealogies – Copyright Law

  1. Drew Smith

    I think that it’s a bit of an overstatement to say that “lists are not protected by copyright.” In reality, a compilation of facts *can* be protected by copyright *if* that compilation was produced by using some creativity and judgment in the selection and arrangement of the facts.

    Genealogies, as compilations of facts, are rarely protected by copyright because the arrangement is almost always according to a standard format, and there is no “selection” of facts. The facts are almost always the birth, marriage, and death facts for a set of individuals who are the ancestors or descendants of some other individual or couple.

    However, if someone were to produce a list of the most important genealogists of the last century (in their opinion), listed in order of their importance (again, in their opinion), then that compilation of information could be copyrighted. While the individual names on the list could not be copyrighted, the entire compilation as presented could be. This is because the compilation would involve both selection and arrangement.

    • And yet that creative list of ingredients with the right measurements is not subject to copyright according to the US Copyright office.

      Drew is right though. In CCC Information Services v. Maclean Hunter Market Reports (1994) a listing was found to be subject to copyright because the authors had used a “wide variety of informational sources and their professional judgment”. The US Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) upheld the decision and likened the list to a statement of opinion.

      So, no wonder the genealogical community is confused by copyright law. While it is easy to understand that a novel is subject to copyright, once we cross the line into “facts” the issue blurrs. This is one of the reasons it is important to keep the issue before the community.


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