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How to Tell if Certain Genealogy Records Are in the Public Domain

Before using any genealogy record that you find, you will need to determine if it is a free genealogy record (i.e.  in the public domain) or if it is copyrighted.  This is not always an easy thing to determine, since copyright laws are confusing and sometimes vague.  However, follow this step by step process to help you figure out if the material you found in your genealogy search is available for free use in the public domain or not.

Step #1: Look for Copyright Information on the Document. One of the easiest ways to tell immediately if a document is copyrighted is to look for the copyright information on the document itself.  If it states that it is copyrighted, it probably is.  However, if you are unsure, check to see if the copyright has expired.  If there is no mention of copyright information on the document, proceed to Step #2.  Note: Just because it does not state that it is copyrighted, does not mean that it is in the public domain.

Step #2:  Determine the Source of the Genealogy Record. Anything produced by the government cannot be copyrighted and is automatically in the public domain.

Step #3:  Determine the Date of the Genealogy Record. If it is an old document, it is probably in the public domain.  All copyrights for unpublished works expire 121 years after they were written and copyrights for published works expire at most 96 years after they were written.  (Note:  This only applies to documents created before 1964.)  So, if you have a document that is more than 121 years old, then it is automatically in the public domain.

Step #4:  Consult a Copyright Attorney. Since there are many loopholes, exceptions, and laws, always consult a copyright attorney before assuming any genealogy record is in the public domain.