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Archiver > RootsWeb-Help > 2000-12 > 0977885809

From: Dan Hamrick <>
Subject: Re: Obituary copyright
Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2000 21:56:49 -0500

As a former newspaper editor and publisher with some knowledge of copyright
law, I want to address the issue of copyright and obituaries.
First, if the obituary is, as one writer suggested, simply a form that
recites the facts, it may not reach the unique creation test of copyright
law and therefore would not be legally copyrighted.
However, most newspapers copyright the entire newspaper. So caution should
be advised.
If a writer went to some lengths to tell the story of the life of someone
who died, I have little doubt it could be copyrighted. A biographical sketch
would get similar treatment, even though the person may or may not be dead.
However, on the practical side. . .I think few newspapers would pursue a
copyright infringement suit over a standard obituary.
It would be rather absurd to spend the money do so without an ulterior
motive ‹ such as slamming a competitor.
It is true that newspapers used to reverse the letters in names, even make
up sham stories, to catch radio competitors and other papers repeating their

So my own view is that I wouldn't worry much about a copyright infringement
suit from a newspaper over an obituary. It might be legal to reprint it if
it were a standard recitation of facts. It might be a violation of copyright
if it were an extraordinary work. Nevertheless, it is doubtful if many, or
any, newspapers would sue over the repetition of an obituary.
The first thing you can do to protect yourself is ask the newspaper if it is
all right; you might consider getting blanket permission. If so, I'd get it
in writing.
There is another thing you can do to keep from getting on their wrong side:
Give them credit for the obituary. Of course, this also is an admission
about where you got it.
There is another thing that is done that is quite common in the news media,
and I may get in trouble for saying this. Change it, or rewrite it, so that
it is not recognizable as the original piece, but make certain the facts are
right. If they had a typo saying 1898, and meant 1998, it would identify
you as the plagiarist.
Please understand that I am not giving legal advice. I am not a lawyer. I am
a former editor. The views are my opinion and should not be viewed as a
professional opinion.
Copyright law is extremely subtle and complex.

The questions about whether the family likes it or not, in my mind, are not
material to the issue of the facts surrounding someone's death. A death is a
matter of public record. The facts of birth, children, marriages, death are
all a matter of public record.
Some family members don't like obituaries stated a certain way.
I used to have funeral directors tell me that the second wife didn't want
the first wife's name mentioned. We did not grant such requests. They could
be particularly odd when children are involved.
The facts are the facts. Period.

Dan Hamrick
402 23rd Street NW
Canton OH 44709
Phone: 330-454-2376

> From: "Morris Myers" <>
> Reply-To: <>
> Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2000 19:05:09 -0600
> To:
> Subject: RE: Obituary copyright
> Resent-From:
> Resent-Date: Tue, 26 Dec 2000 16:59:17 -0800
> Depending on in which paper the obit was published, the information is likely
> already on the internet. Many papers now include the obit section in the
> online
> editions.
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Sally Youngquist [mailto:]
> Sent: Tuesday, December 26, 2000 6:42 PM
> To:
> Subject: Obituary copyright
> Thank you for the viewpoints on copyright and obituaries. I reread the obits
> and
> see that they are more or less statements about the families, not a personal
> write-up about the deceased.
> My second question, would the living family maybe not like their names, and
> yes,
> addresses as far as the town they live in, published on the internet. I still
> feel it could offend some people. My concern was that it wasn't posted by a
> family member who could take responsibility for it.
> Thanks for your replies and I will leave them on the site. If by chance I
> receive any feed back, I can always apologize and take them off.
> Sally
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