Is A Lookup A Copyright Violation?


I am currently following a discussion over at GenealogyWise about censorship and there is a very good side discussion pertaining to copyright and the practice of lookups among genealogists.

Very often – since genealogists tend to be a giving sort – you will see people offer to lookup items either from a book they own, a CD they purchased or from an on-line database to which they.  Is a lookup a “random act of genealogical kindness” or a copyright violation?

This does however bring up a whole slew of questions:

  • Do you consider someone who advertises their willingness to do a lookup for anyone as a copyright violator?
  • How do you feel when someone advertises their lookup willingness on a blog post or in a message forum?
  • What if the person owned a CD or a reference book which is currently available and in-print?
  • What if the person was willing to go to a library or archive (or said, “I’ll be there anyway, let me look it up for you . .. “) to do the lookup with publicly available resources?
  • If you were the author or owner of the information source, would you contact the person advertising their lookup services? Have you ever had to deal with the problem of lookups related to your product?

I have had several instances where people will ask me to lookup stuff on one of the many databases to which I subscribe (and for which I pay good money) such as footnote or GenealogyBank.  My practice:  I will only make one lookup if it is convenient for me but I also tell the requestor that they should get their own subscription or go to a library which has access to the database.  I think that if the person gets an idea as to the quality of the information available (by me doing the lookup), then they should try to subscribe on their own.

Ideally, I’d love to see some of these companies have a  “referral code” that I can send to people when I do a lookup.  Something that would give me loyalty points or credits if the person does subscribe on their own so I could eventually use it as a discount towards a renewal or other items on their site.

What has your experience been with lookups and how do you handle such requests?

© 2009, Thomas MacEntee

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About Thomas MacEntee

What happens when a “tech guy” with a love for history gets laid off during The Great Recession of 2008? You get Thomas MacEntee, a genealogy professional who’s also a blogger, educator, author, social media connector, online community builder and more. Thomas was laid off after a 25-year career in the information technology field, so he started his own genealogy-related business called High Definition Genealogy. He also created an online community of over 3,000 family history bloggers known as GeneaBloggers. His most recent endeavor, Hack Genealogy, is an attempt to “re-purpose today’s technology for tomorrow’s genealogy.” Thomas describes himself as a lifelong learner with a background in a multitude of topics who has finally figured out what he does best: teach, inspire, instigate, and serve as a curator and go-to-guy for concept nurturing and inspiration. Thomas is a big believer in success, and that we all succeed when we help each other find success.

20 thoughts on “Is A Lookup A Copyright Violation?

  1. I’m much more likely to do a lookup for local resources or books I own than for online databases. Local/personal stuff can be hard to find or access so I’m willing to help, but database requests are just trying to take advantage of a kind soul.

  2. A lookup from a public reference book (like at a local library) seems appropriate as the resource is already in the public arena. I don’t think I would ask someone to lookup from a subscription website as a way to avoid buying the subscription. I too like the idea of a referral code.

  3. I’m, no lawyer (phew) so take all this as simply my own, non-authoritative research into the subject:

    As long as you are citing the work you are quoting info from, an author would be on pretty shaky ground to try and prove a copyright infringement. Especially in the case of genealogy, as facts themselves are very rarely copyrightable – only the presentation of them. So if someone asks for a look-up for the death date of John Doe, and you send it to them, you are certainly in the clear. Even if you transcribe (quote) a few paragraphs, I would think you would be fine as long as you are crediting the source) If you scan the page and send it, then it might get more dicey.

    I’ve not read Ancestry or Footnote’s EULA, but my assumption has always been that they control the access to the images – not the images themselves. So I don’t know if downloading and sharing is a violation of law, or just your agreement with the provider (in which case, it is probably breach of contract anyways, I guess…pick your poison!)

    Interesting question, and probably a million different opinions and scenarios, any number of which could be correct depending on circumstances.

  4. These are usually licensing and user agreement issues, not to do with copyright.
    For example,’s ‘Terms and Conditions’ (accessible from the main page) grants subscribers/users a ‘limited’ license for ‘personal or professional family history research’. Does that mean one should make general offers on mailing lists, etc. to do lookups? I don’t think so – but I do think this probably does allow for one to do a lookup in the course of assisting someone with their genealogical research.

  5. My blog lists the books I own that I am willing to do look-ups in. I do cite the material and also (because I usually buy them second-hand) a list of places that I’ve had success in purchasing these local histories.

    My website is a link library, and I do list pay per use sites on it, with a disclaimer that I’m not affiliated with them and unable to provide content. I was concerned that I might be breaking terms and conditions of my own account with them. However, I’ll still help out on a mailing list if I’m able.

  6. It is the Fair Use clause that c governs from Title 17, US Code.

    There are four fair use factors.

    1. How much you quote from a source
    2. The purpose of the quote, (Critiques and educational use have greater latitude)
    3. Does the quotation affect the ability of the creator to market his her work?
    4. Is the content of the quotation copyrighted/able.

    Facts can not be copyrighted, and most works created by Government also can not be copyrighted.

    There is a significant difference between being publicly viewable and being “In the Public Domain.” Public Domain means OUT of copyright protection, publicly accessible means simply viewable by the public.

    Just because you can see it, doesn’t mean you can do anything you want with it.

    It is a VERY complex subject and research is required to assure you remain in legal bounds when using possible copyrighted content.

  7. The referral code is an excellent idea.

    I agree with the comments that the historical information itself is not copyrighted, just the presentation, and the source citation should always be included anyway as a standard of proof and general good practice.

    I would also point out that in the case of scanning/downloading an entire page of information for sharing with someone other than the subscriber, it is likely done all the time by professional genealogists in their reports to their clients, with no royalty or commission payment back to their source of the information. Therefore, I do not believe that if you were to do so as an act of kindness (without being paid to do so) that it would violate any copyright laws. Personally, I am willing to do one look-up for an individual who belongs to a mailing list or online group, but any more generosity than that becomes a time-management issue. We all have to make a living, and thankfulness for favors doesn’t pay the mortgage.

    It is my humble assumption that the online, paid databases are more interested in protecting themselves from someone presenting the data as their own and making it searchable by others through linking, i.e. many users through one subscription. In addition, I do not believe there is anything available through the paid subscription databases that you cannot find at a library or local government office somewhere. All of the scanned texts on and scanned newspapers at the Newsbank sites are out of copyright protection. It is the time-saving convenience of access that we pay for.

  8. I totally agree with September. I also have subscriptions to & Footnote. Love them both. As a family genealogist since 1982, I do occasionally receive an offer from a paying client. I copy book entries, photgraph headstones, download records from both sites and whatever else I can find.

    I really don’t think there is a problem with looking up info for people who don’t have the membership. It isn’t cost effective to get a membership for them if all they want is one or two items, or searching one or two ancestors. There is a referral link to both subscription sites within my webpages and where I have documents posted, cited as being from that site, which is very good advertising for them too. And other than documents, a great deal of genealogical info from Ancestry comes from people posting THEIR information. For years people have sent it in to and they put it together on a CD & sell it. A lot of times the info isn’t correct but it is a good place to get a lead if you are dealing with brickwalls.

    At GW, I think one person was concerned, why I don’t know.

  9. I have to related a funny story (well not really funny) – someone decided to copy language from the Genealogy Software Reviews at TopTenREVIEWS ( post here and use the GeneaBloggers name on their “saving money” website.

    I sent my standard cease and desist email but first, since they didn’t have any contact info on their site, I had to use WHOIS and lookup the info on the domain name registration.

    I basically asked them to cough up $500 via PayPal or take down the post immediately.

    Within 30 minutes the post was removed and I received an apology.

    Goes to show you the power of being vigilant and using a good cease and desist message.

  10. If I ask someone for a look up in a publication or a CD or a fiche, all I ask is how often my interest appears, nothing worse than purchasing the product and then to find it contains no information relavent to me. I do the same I check to see if it’s what they need and if so I tell them where they can obtain it.

  11. Everyone has good and very valid points. Rather then refer to them all.. I will just say: Yes, there is a fair use law. No, I cannot see where it matters if it is my eyes or the requester’s eyes viewing the book/film etc. If we are to desist doing lookups that removes a huge number of mailing lists and one might be going backwards and have to travel to everywhere or back to armchair research. BUT… how can we do armchair research are we not asking a clerk, librarian or.. to do a lookup for us even though we normally would pay does that make it more valid by paying? What a tangled web we see when things are dissected! ;)

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