With the growing popularity of genealogical research comes an onslaught of get rich quick salesmen. While searching for even the most minuscule mention of an ancestor, people often jump at the opportunity to own a digital copy of a map, a photo, or a letter that ties into their family history. However, disappointing to those of us who know better, many of these digital documents are not copies of rare pages stored in a lucky owner's attic. Instead, they are downloaded digital images of public domain documents that are free to anyone who knows where to look for them.
Public domain is a term used to describe anything that is without ownership and free for public use. For instance, have you ever noticed that no one sings "Happy Birthday" on television? That's because the song isn't in the public domain. That's right, someone owns the rights to the birthday song.
Some items have copyrights, but are available for personal use. Many museums offer this option to the public, allowing you to reference a work of art or print a copy for your own family genealogy, but you may not use the piece for profit or public display. It's all up to the owner what rights he/she wishes to grant to the public, but public domain items aren't owned by anyone.
The Library of Congress houses a phenomenal number of items with a fantastic digital library available to the public at www.loc.gov. Not everything in the digital archive is in the public domain, however. What's nice about the Library of Congress is that it spells out the rights of each item as you find it. Here, you can find a myriad of photographs taken as part of government funded projects that documented architecture, geology, and other aspects of the country over the years. If the government paid for the photographic excursion with government funds, the photograph remains in the public domain. After all, the taxpayers paid for it, so they should be allowed to use it.
One can easily find hand drawn maps of towns and illustrated atlases that have gone out of copyright and into the public domain. These look great framed, especially if the location holds special meaning for you. People know this, and that's why they download the images and then print them for resale. It's not illegal, but it's not the most ethical choice either. Why pay for something that's free?
Another digital archives often sold to genealogical researchers or history buffs is a CD of "historical images/maps/documents" for a select area. Most likely, the seller visited his/her local courthouse and made copies of free documents. If you're looking for land deeds, service records, or any other public information, your courthouse will have it free of charge.
They're not free for your reproduction, but sites like Google Books offer an unending amount of digitally scanned books for your use. Many are very specialized books that are found in one or two libraries, and they offer engravings as well as text that is available for your personal use. Google lists its usage rights at the beginning of every book; other sites like www.archive.org may have a blanket copyright page on their site. You'll be surprised how many of these are in the public domain already.
The final free item that often pops up for sale is a newspaper article. An 1890 newspaper article could be printed on heirloom paper and presented for a nice price online. Yet, before you buy, try searching Google News for the item. Choose "advanced search" and then "archives" to find old items. If it's the obituary for your great-grandfather and it's on there, you're free to print it as you like. If it's just research you're looking for, visit your local college library (many local libraries have had their budgets cut to eliminate some databases) to access archives of your local newspaper. You'll be able to print Grandpa's information there without paying the archive price that the newspaper will charge.
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