Archive for July, 2013

Copyright, plagiarism, and citing your sources

UPDATE 13 March 2014: Apparently the posts referenced (and linked) in the SlideShare presentation bleow have been removed. Though the offending party has started a new blog, it does not appear that the posts based on my content have also been migrated to the new site (yet). MH

The Code of Ethics of the Association of Professional Genealogists contains two similar statements:

[I therefore agree to:]

2. . . . fully and accurately cite references. . . .

4. . . . refrain from knowingly violating or encouraging others to violate laws and regulations concerning copyright. . . .[1]

At first glance these two issues seem to say more or less the same thing. “Cite your sources”—a refrain I have often repeated in this blog and elsewhere.

There are, however, two separate issues at play here: one of documentation, the other of attribution.

Documentation is ultimately a good research practice, but not necessarily an ethical issue. Is it unwise to jot down that birth date on your family group sheet without noting the death certificate making the claim? Of course it is. One will quickly regret not citing the sources for information. Is it unethical not to cite that death certificate? I’m not so sure that it is.

Violating copyright laws, on the other hand, is definitely unethical (and illegal). Plagiarizing someone else’s work is unethical. Quoting someone else’s work without attribution is unethical. Even copying large portions of someone else’s work with attribution is unethical. For those of us who make a living from our intellectual property, plagiarism and copyright violation quite literally constitute theft.

There simply is no legal or ethical way to copy someone else’s intellectual property. “Fair use” does not allow wholesale copying, despite what one might think–even with a citation of the source. Without attribution, any copying whatsoever  is unacceptable.

Copyright violation and plagiarism have been discussed quite a bit among genealogists lately. Rather than repeat all of the information, I will simply provide this list of recent articles on the subject, most by authors far more knowledgeable on the subject than myself. If you write content for a blog or website or society newsletter or anywhere else as part of your genealogical career, please take the time to educate yourself on this subject.

The following posts all involve recent cases alleging copyright:

Edited to add the following two additional links:


[1] “Code of Ethics,” Association of Professional Genealogists ( : accessed 6 July 2013).


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