The issue of copyright is not always a topic associated with family history research and yet its affects both the professional and amateur researcher.

What is copyrighted?

Some people are confused about what is copyrighted and believe that a piece of work has to be professionally printed or registered to be protected by the copyright law.  In fact ANYTHING that is original regardless of whether it has been written, drawn, photographed, sung, played, recorded or created in any other way is automatically copyrighted. The author or creator does not have to register the work to protect it against being copied or changed. There is no copyright office to apply to.  For example, this blog is a piece of original work and is automatically copyrighted, as are the materials I have designed for use in my courses.

In genealogy this includes the use of images of census returns, parish registers, birth, marriage and death certificates, and photographs, and is why professional researchers take the time to transcribe the documents they have found.

It is not the information in census returns and BMD certificates etc. that are copyrighted but the layout and presentation of the documents that holds the information. This is why transcribing the information is allowed but placing a copy of the image in a book which is being sold, or adding it to a website, is not unless permission has been granted and usually a fee has been paid.

Who holds the Copyright?

In most cases the creator holds the copyright, and this includes any photographs that have been taken.  If you have professional photographs of a wedding or other celebration, the copyright is held by the photographer not the person who paid him to take them.

In other cases the copyright can be held by a company if the work was created by employees of that business as part of their employment.  Therefore if a manager has asked an employee to write for a company website, the copyright belongs to the company not the employee who did the work.

Copyright Exceptions.

The Copyright law is not broken when a single copy of a work is made for:

  • Non-commercial research
  • Private study
  • Criticism
  • Review
  • Library use – i.e. for the preservation of a work by a library or archive.

BUT you must acknowledge the owner and where you found it to stay!  This is another reason why referencing your sources is important.

Some online databases may require you to agree to use the information in them under certain restrictions.  These can vary between databases so you should take time to read the terms and conditions of databases run by all research websites. Information on these sites may be covered by a license owned by the company and could be more restrictive than the usual copyright law.  Some websites, like the British Newspaper Archive, do not allow you to use the whole site for commercial purposes.

You agree to the licenses that when registering for websites and these are legally binding, so before you sign up remember to read the terms and conditions, especially if you are researching professionally.

Is copyright permanent?

No.  In general, copyright stops after 70 years from the death of the creator.  So if I die in 30 years’ time, this blog will be copyrighted for another 100 years.  Audio recordings are only covered for 50 years.

Census returns, military, legal and transportation records are covered by Crown copyright.  Crown copyright last for 50 years after the year of publication or for 125 years after creation.

When the work has come out of copyright, it is in the ‘public domain’ and can be used without any restrictions.

Documents may have been digitalised on the internet, therefore created in a new format, are re-copyrighted  This copyright belongs to the company that created the image.  This includes images found on such as Ancestry and Find My Past. Census images etc. on these sites will be not be out of copyright for at least 50 years after they were published.

 Can copyright be passed on or cancelled?

Yes.  A creator can give permission to allow others to use and adapt their work or even transfer the copyright to someone else.  They may charge for this. Some give restricted access whilst others cancel the copyright altogether.  This is more common with photographs and many copyright free images can be found on the Wikimedia website.

Regardless of any transfer of copyright ownership or any permission given to use the piece of work, the author always has ‘moral rights’, which ensure:

  • They are identified as the author
  • No one else claims the work as being theirs
  • They can object to derogatory treatment of the work


Never assume a piece of work is copyright free, always check first.  Even when it is free it is still good manners to name the creator.  You should never give the impression that the work is yours when it is not. That can be deemed as theft.



I am not a law professional and this piece is not intended as a legal piece of work, but for general basic information.  Copyright law can be complex and it up to each individual to ensure they stay legal.

Be aware that American Copyright laws differ from UK laws, so always check the relevant legislation.


More in-depth reading:

Government guidance:

National Archives:

Creative Commons: