The law probably requires that I disclose to you that I am not a lawyer. Nor do I play one on TV. The following opinions should not be construed as legal advice. They are my own and are probably wrong. I am not licensed to practice law in any state or Caribbean Country.
Oops. I almost forgot. Parts of my body are known by the State of California to cause cancer if lit on fire and stuffed up your nose. Now on to it...
I always cringe when reading articles about genealogy and copyrights. Authors typically explain the convoluted rules concerning expiration of United States copyright protection. I worry that leaves readers unprepared for copyright laws in other countries where they do research. Did you know that some copyrights never expire?
I worry the articles leave readers with the impression that they can freely copy public domain documents from anywhere on the Internet. When it comes to sites like Ancestry.com, it isn't that simple.
Ancestry.com is not so naive as to claim copyright protection of public domain documents. Instead, Ancestry.com uses contract law. Ancestry.com denies you access to its content until you enter into a contract wherein you promise not to take all their stuff.
Yes, public domain documents on Ancestry.com are in the public domain and copyright law does not apply. No, you can’t break your contract without facing legal penalties.
Don’t remember signing a contract? Think back to the check box you clicked when you signed up for Ancestry.com (or other software programs). You click the box indicating your have read the terms and conditions, you pay your money, you use the site. In return, Ancestry.com gives you something of value.
It is my understanding that these actions are sufficient to establish a binding agreement between you and Ancestry.com—at least according to the contract law of the State of Utah. Copyright law is federal. Contract law is state; it can vary from state to state.
I wouldn’t mind a contract law expert commenting on how this works.
- What if you are under age? Is the contract valid?
- If you require assistance using a computer, and someone else clicks the box without making you aware of the agreement, are you still bound by it?
- What if you use Ancestry.com Library Edition? You didn’t enter into the contract. Can you freely copy Ancestry.com’s content?
- Is the library suppose to do something that restricts how you use Ancestry.com content?
- The contract (terms and conditions) states that Ancestry.com can change the contract without any notice to you besides changing a date on a webpage. Give me a break. Is such a carte blanche contract term enforceable?
So before you start copying public domain articles from websites, re-read the contract you made with that website.
Next week I’ll point you in the direction of a good, recent series of copyright articles from a lawyer blogger. And I’ll pose another set of questions to anyone willing to comment.