The session, Facts, Photos and Fair Use; Copyright Law for Genealogists presented by Judy Russell, JD, CGsm , CGLsm was by far the most sobering. This is a complex issue and the one rule of thumb Ms. Russell repeated is: It depends.
Ms. Russell began her talk by sharing a story about a small Midwest genealogy club who reprinted a genealogy poem by Linda Ellis. This poem is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission. The small Midwest genealogy club didn’t realize this when they reprinted her lovely poem in their newsletter. When they digitized their newsletters and put them on their website, an employee of Ms Ellis found her poem and notified the club they were violating copyright. They faced a huge fine. The club responded they were a small 501 (c) 3 and had only a couple hundred dollars in their treasury. The fine was then reduced to $2,500. The club faced bankruptcy. If you Google "Linda Ellis Copyright Infringement" you will find some interesting articles!
Ms. Russell told us copyright infringement carries serious fines – for copyrighted material used for commercial purposes without written permission, the fines can range in the millions; for non-commercial use fines can be $150,000.
Now that she had our attention . . . Ms. Russell helped us relax by explaining how copyright works. As soon as one sets pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) whatever is written is automatically copyrighted. The owner has these rights: to make copies of the material, prepare derivative works, distribute copies and display the work in public. The work has to be in tangible form and has to be produced by a human.
Other protections for creative works are patents and trademarks.
Some things can’t be copyrighted, like facts and U.S. Government material. You can use things in the public domain and items published in the U.S. before 1923. This is not true for the other 164 countries who also have copyright law.
Everything created after 1 January 1978 carries a copyright for “at least" 70 years from time of creation. Here is where “it depends” comes in.
Ms. Russell provided two pages of Resources on copyright law starting with the US Copyright Office.
Ms. Russell's website, the Legal Genealogist is where she has posted a number of blogs on copyright law as well as many other legal issues.