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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

16 thoughts on “Is A Lookup A Copyright Violation?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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