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).

17 thoughts on “Copyright, plagiarism, and citing your sources

  1. Didn’t I just read this week that this guy settled with a well-known website owner over the same plagiarism issue? The terms of the settlement were not disclosed so it isn’t clear if it hurt his wallet. Apparently he doesn’t have time to develop his own content or the money to pay others to write it. At the time the lawsuit was announced, I wrote him an email and asked to be removed from his newsletter and mentioned the lawsuit. Judging from your presentation, I won’t be re-subscribing to his newsletter or purchasing anything from him in the future.

    Good luck in getting him to remove the material he (clearly) cribbed from you. Thanks to Dear Myrtle for making your plight known to the genealogy community.

  2. If past behavior is any evidence he won’t respond to requests asking him to remove plagiarized items. I actually saw someone trying to defend him on Facebook a couple days ago. Unbelievable!

  3. I swear, every time plagiarism rears its ugly head in this field, I get more and more disgusted. I’ve let my APG membership lapse because I’m incensed that known plagiarists remain dues-paying members of the organization. I’ve also become wary of APG members who confide in me about fellow members’ plagiarism, yet choose not to file a formal complaint. It seems to me that not reporting a plagiarist could be a Code of Ethics violation in and of itself. If someone chooses not to file a complaint but knows that a published item contains plagiarized material–whether it’s a conference syllabus or a course textbook or a laminated reference guide–then surely that person has not done his/her best to “promote the trust and security of genealogical consumers” as stipulated in the Code of Ethics. I really wish more genealogical consumers and non-members would bring incidents of plagiarism to the Professional Review Committee’s attention. And the 12-month time limit should be longer too.

    • I can’t speak to the actions of any other APG members. However, if I ever discovered that my work was plagiarized by an APG member, I would certainly be filing a formal complaint with the Professional Review Committee.

      • As any true professional would, Michael! In my opinion, one incident of plagiarism calls a writer’s entire oeuvre into question, so it baffles me that anyone would choose not to file a complaint, especially if he/she could produce convincing evidence of the violation. I know you “can’t speak to the actions of any other APG members,” so I’m not asking you to speculate on possible reasons. I’m just pondering the matter.

    • You’re absolutely right about APG… “An old girl network who only go after the (perceived) weak” …so sad because they used to be a great organization

  4. Michael, I am very sorry you are in a situation where you had to spend your time comparing your original work with posting made by someone else. I subscribe to your RootsDig blog, appreciate the work you do in the genealogy community, and have learned a lot from the genealogy information you share.

    For other readers, I recommend that this wonderful posting by Michael be shared by all of us with any local genealogy organization that is planning to hire this person as a speaker with a request that if the organization review the material to determine if they really would like to have this person speak at their conference. The recommendation should include a request to review the slide show so they see the raw material and can make up their mind. Also would recommend that the article be shared with anyone who has a past posting mentioning this person so they can decide if they would like to keep or remove any postings that may look like an endorsement.

  5. Geez Louise! Will it ever end? I am just now getting around to reading your blog post this morning because my sister and nieces were visiting this weekend. I wrote a blog post today about Barry after reading Dear Myrtle’s column about the situation. I have been following the story closely ever since Cyndi posted on FB about what happened to her (long before the lawsuit). After the lawsuit was dismissed and Barry hadn’t removed the content I decided to name names and warn my readers. The blog is geared to beginners and intermediates who might go to Barry’s website and think his services would help them. I am going to update this morning’s post with a link to your blog because your slide show is excellent and it shows your point very well. Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together.

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  9. This is a slightly different issue, but if a person writes a blog, can they give attribution for a concept they found in another place? Specifically, the 5 steps of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Can those steps be written out in an instructional blog post with attribution given to the Board of Certified Genealogists or is this copyright infringement regardless of whether attribution is given or not? Is this considered “intellectual property” and the Proof Standard steps are protected against use? I know you cannot plagiarize someone’s original work, but are “concepts and ideas” copyrighted as well if they came from a specific source? This is a cloudy issue for me but want to more fully understand it and would love some clarification.

    • Generally speaking, yes, you are allowed to discuss someone else’s ideas with attribution. That is extremely common in all academic fields. What constitutes fair use in the sense of copyright infringement varies depending on the length of the quotation, the length of the original work, and other factors. In the specific case of quoting the GPS, I have never heard anyone involved with the Board for Certification of Genealogists complain that it was being discussed. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more it is discussed by genealogists, the better.

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