Let’s suppose you look online and see a newly published book. After reading a few reviews, you decide to buy the book and being a traditionalist, you order a hard-bound copy for your personal library. You pay for the book using your online account or with a credit card. Within one or two days, the book arrives at your door. It turns out to be a wonderful book and you enjoy reading it. Do you now “own” your book? Surprisingly, that is a serious and not a silly question. If you do not own the book outright, what are the limitations on your “ownership?” Do any of these limitations change if you had purchased an electronic version of the same book? If you own the hardback copy of “your” book, do you have to pay for an ebook copy of the same book?
The answers to all these questions are pertinent to the crisis in the free flow of information in our worldwide society. As genealogists, we bump into this problem on a regular basis whether we are aware of it or not. Here is an example from the FamilySearch.org Books section of the website.
Back to the issue of owning a book. When you purchase a book that is subject to a claim of copyright, even though I have purchased a book, the content and use of the content is still not under my control. For example, I could not reproduce my “purchased” copy of the book and sell it. Technically, what you purchase when you purchase a book subject to copyright is a limited license. The terms of your license are contained in the provisions of the U.S. Copyright Act and all of the cases decided by all of the Federal Courts on copyright in the United States.
There are some real property analogies. Even if you “own” the largest interest in real property called a “fee simple” ownership, you are still subject to real estate taxes from various government agencies. If you fail to pay your taxes, you may ultimately lose your real property. You may disagree with the government’s right to assess your property with taxes, but there is almost nothing you can do about it.
The main problem with the government limitations on books and other intellectual property is that the limitations that were originally designed to apply only for a limited period of time now extend for more than the lifetime of anyone now living. So, if you purchase a book published in 2018, you will die before the copyright expires. In fact, probably most of your children and even your grandchildren will still be subject to the copyright. The current copyright term is 70 years after the death of author. but if a work has corporate authorship, the term is 95 years from publication or 120 years from creation, whichever expires first. If you have a particularly long-lived author, you might have a copyright that lasts for almost 150 years. What other parts of our government do you know that might last that long?
In reference to the notice above, I have no idea what it means or why it would even appear. Obviously, a copyright does not prevent a book from being viewed online. However, the paper copy of a book and the ebook copy of the same book can be separately copyright protected. In the case of most of the books pertinent to genealogy, there is very little benefit from copyright protection. If you publish a personal family history, for example, yes, you have a copyright. But why would you want to protect the contents from being copied? If you think you are going to write the great American novel, perhaps, but considering the literary value of most of the family histories I have looked at, I don’t think commercial viability is an issue.