Roots to the Past

Diana Tibert
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Understanding copyright

Copyright is something many of us never think about. When we do, we often view it as complicated and contradictory. Whether we realize it or not, as genealogists, we deal with copyright all the time.
In general, materials protected by copyright are those considered art and literature. Those are broad categories that include books, magazines, photographs, newspapers, song lyrics, poems, paintings, videos, trademarks and everything similar. The copyright law is breached if protected material is published (for sale or for free) by those not owning the right to.
In Canada, as soon as a person creates a piece of work, they own the copyright. For example, I wrote this column; I own the copyright. No one is permitted to publish it in any form (newspaper, magazine, online) without my consent. But, if a person was hired specifically to create something, say report the news for a newspaper, then the copyright of that news story is owned by the newspaper, not the reporter. Permission to reprint that story must be granted by them.
A creator owns the copyright for their work from the moment it is created until 50 years after their death. But again, there are exceptions. Photographs are protected by copyright from the time they were taken until 50 years later. The timeframe is set by the photograph, not by the life span of the photographer.
Of course, there are grey areas. For example, who owns the rights to obituaries? Is it the person who wrote and submitted it to the newspaper? It only seems natural. Or do they waive their rights and allow the newspaper to take possession and publish it in any format (print, online, CDs?) Obituaries are an important source of information for genealogists and have been passed between millions of individuals. Newspapers sell obituaries on CDs and websites charge fees for viewing them in their databases. Obituaries, it seems, are public domain the moment they are published.
Created material enters public domain once the copyright expires. Anyone wishing to reproduce or republish the original work is free to do so. Again, there are some exceptions, and each country has their own copyright laws.
The Internet has changed the playing field for copyright. At one time, the only option was the printed form. This limited the individuals who could break the law by reprinting protected work. Now, anyone with a computer can copy or scan whole or parts of books and post them online. This isn't a problem if the author has been deceased for more than 50 years, but it's breaking the law if they haven't been.
Offering protected material to the public with no reimbursement to the creator does a disservice to the creator and the public, particularly if the work is current. The creator loses royalties, which may limit any future projects, and the public may lose the opportunity to sample future works because the creator can't afford to research and write for free.
The copyright law tries to balance the protection of an individual's creation with the rights of the population to have access to the work. To learn more visit the Copyright Law in Canada website (
Researcher's File
Seeking descendants of John William Dryden, who was murdered in May 1930, Glengarry, Pictou County. Already possess a few newspaper articles concerning the death. Looking for an obituary and other pertinent information. Contact: Marg Johnson, 828 Hwy 336, Upper Stewiacke, NS, B0N 2P0; phone: 902-671-2697; email:
Diana Lynn Tibert is a freelance writer living in Milford. Submit a query. It's free!: RR#1 Milford, Hants County, NS, B0N 1Y0; email:

Geographic location: Canada, Milford, Pictou County Hants County

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