Genealogy Tip: Copyrights – Can I Copy That?

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega writes about an important issue all genealogists face in their research: copyright, and when and how to use images and records found on the internet. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

There’s no doubt that the internet provides researchers with more information on their family history than ever before. Photographs, record images, and genealogically relevant information can all be found by searching genealogy and non-genealogy websites.

But the big question is, can you use it? When we consider online materials, they are not all free for the taking. You need to consider copyright protection and how that impacts what you want to do with the item. Just because you can download something doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want with it. If you’re doing something beyond personal study of an item (for example, publishing it on your website or in a family history book), you need to ask yourself:

  • Who is the owner?
  • What are the website’s terms of service?

Digital Collections

Find a photograph of the World War II navy ship your ancestor served on and want to add it to your online tree, website, or family history book? That’s great! What a wonderful addition to your family history. But first you need to determine if you have permission to do so.

How do you do that? You need to find out who owns the copyright or publishing rights to that item. In some cases, repositories freely share images – but just because it’s “old” doesn’t mean that it’s available to be used in a publication (more on that below).

For example, the photograph-sharing website Flickr the Commons hosts a collection of images from various repositories worldwide. Clearly marked on each image’s web page is the phrase “no known copyright restrictions.” Their Rights Statement further explains why the images can be used. Although you can use the images, you would still properly cite where the photograph comes from and where you accessed it. This helps you document the item and allows anyone you are sharing the information with to know where it came from.

Most websites with digital content will provide a copyright statement. If the website doesn’t, search for a Terms of Service or Terms of Use web page (sometimes located in the menu found at the bottom of the web page). As a last resort, you can also contact the website owner and ask.

Like I mentioned above, it’s a mistake to believe that an “old” photograph is in the public domain. When I wrote my book Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra, I used a late 19th century photograph I obtained from a university digital collection. Because I used it for a publication, I had to pay for the use of that image and sign a contract that I would not use it in any other way (otherwise I would need to pay additional fees).

Later someone asked my permission to use the photo. I explained that I paid for the right to use it and that they would need to contact the library for permission. They didn’t understand why they should have to contact the library for an older photograph. Yes, it was older but in this case the library claimed publishing rights of that photograph, which required permissions and monetary compensation.

Genealogy Websites

What about information you find on genealogy websites, either free or subscription-based? This can include everything from facts found on family trees or user-generated content such as photographs and documents, to record images scanned by the website or a third-party contributor.

There are a few things to consider when you want to use what you find on a genealogy website. If the information is meant to be freely shared, such as family tree facts, you most likely are fine. These features might even have buttons that allow sharing to various social media platforms or email. If you are using photographs or content shared by other users, you would be better off contacting the person and asking permission before you publish that content.

What about the images of records found on the website’s databases? Refer to their Terms of Service to see what limitations are placed on the reuse of that content.

For example, let’s look at FamilySearch’s Terms of Use. It states:

“Unless otherwise indicated, you may view, download, and print materials from this site only for your personal, noncommercial use (including such use in connection with your calling in the Church), or for your use as a volunteer indexer in connection with the FamilySearch Indexing Program pursuant to the FamilySearch Indexing Program Terms and Conditions or the FamilySearch Indexing Software License Agreement.

“You may not post content from this site on another website or on a computer network without our permission. You may not transmit or distribute content from this site to other sites.”

This Terms of Use goes on to provide information about using the content by professional genealogists, and contact information to request copyright permission to use certain materials.


So, what about GenealogyBank? Can you publish newspaper article images found on the website? You may think the answer depends on when the article was printed, but it’s more complex than that.

GenealogyBank, like other subscription services, has to take into consideration who provided that content and what guidelines they must follow in order to make it available to their subscribers. Read GenealogyBank’s Terms of Use.

In regards to the digitized content on the site, it is for personal use only. You cannot re-publish it online or in a publication without permission from GenealogyBank. To make an inquiry, email:

What if you really need that article for your family history book? You could transcribe the article and add a source citation that includes the article title, newspaper title, date, and that it was obtained from GenealogyBank along with the URL.

What about the GenealogyBank Blog? You might find a blog article that would be a great edition to your genealogical or historical society newsletter. Maybe you want to use a photo that you find on the blog. Can you use it?

Once again, you need to ask permission. The blog writers own the copyright to their articles and personal images. GenealogyBank owns the publishing rights to those materials and any content used from the GenealogyBank website. We do in some cases grant permission to re-publish blog articles. To make an inquiry, email:

The Bottom Line

Content found online belongs to someone. Whether it’s the photograph I use of my family’s Bible to illustrate a GenealogyBank Blog article or the photograph of your ancestor’s house that a member of a genealogy website uploaded, the bottom line is: don’t make assumptions.

No matter how good your intentions are, if it’s not yours, make sure you have permission to use it – and if you need to, ask. Read the website’s Terms of Service or send an email. You avoid a lot of problems, including possible serious violations of copyright, by seeking permission to re-publish content before using it.

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