I have used several researchers who paid $$$ to have sets of records from the archives of Eastern European countries scanned for them. The researcher then personally did the work of translating and indexing the names, dates and places from these records.

Over the past few years, the researchers have from these records found and provided me with a few hundred documents along with translations of each. I pay a small fee for each record and translation. These have proved very valuable to my genealogy research and have been well worth the fees I have paid.

I have no formal contract with any of the researchers for the provision of the records and translations to me.

In my family tree that I present online, do I have the right to display the record and/or translation of the documents that I have received? Or do the rights to the document and translation belong to the researcher who paid to acquire them and did the work to translate and index them and find them for me?

I know I have the right to source my information as "Birth record of xxxx on yyyy-mm-dd in pppppp, acquired by me", and can even specify "acquired by me from researcher".

But is it my right to post the document and translation myself? Or should others interested in specific documents I mention as my sources technically have to pay the researcher for their own copy of the document?

  • I am not a lawyer, but I believe that it is implied that it is OK to share the records for people in your tree. A reference to a source is no use to the next researcher if the source cannot be obtained by them. If the paid researcher didn't put their name on a report, I add it.
    – Mattman944
    May 7, 2022 at 23:07
  • @Mattman944 - The source can be obtained by the next researcher by contacting my researcher and paying for it. If they contact me, I can see if they want me to have my researcher contact them. I am asking if it is in my right to make the source and translation available. Maybe I need a lawyer.
    – lkessler
    May 8, 2022 at 13:49
  • 3
    @lkessler, I think this a perfect question to ask Judy G. Russell on her blog The Legal Genealogist. I suspect her answer will start with it depends. Without a contract, for example, I don't know how one could argue that the translation was "work for hire" or not, but if there are provisions in the law about what happens when you didn't have a contract, a lawyer or a genealogist with a law degree should be able to find those statutes. Note the T&C because IIRC Ancestry has it set to blow back on users if they upload something they don't have rights to.
    – Jan Murphy
    May 8, 2022 at 19:37
  • 1
    P.S. Ideally we need someone like Judy G. Russell who is familiar with the copyright laws for all of the countries involved.
    – Jan Murphy
    May 8, 2022 at 19:39

1 Answer 1


I'm not a specialist or expert on legal matters, but I do have some experience working with Eastern European archives (mainly Estonia, but also Latvia, and Russia). There are a set of different laws and regulations regarding archival resources, in addition to the copyright law. In addition to international and national laws, there are policies regarding the publication of materials that are set by each institution by themselves. So, if you want to make 100% sure that sharing or publishing is allowed, it is better to check the policies of the specific archives concerned.

My personal experience is that most archives allow free copying and publishing of their records that are available to the general public for personal use, given that the source is properly referenced. You can make copies yourself, download online images or order copies from the archives and use them in your research, or even publish them, as long as those images are referenced properly.

As to the copyright law, owning a copy of a document does not make you an owner of the copyright of the original document, even if you have paid or commissioned the copy. Anyway, most of the materials in public archives should be public domain, at least the older materials (the author has died more than 70 years ago), and copies made of an item in the public domain are not protected by copyright law unless they are modified in a way that makes them an original piece of work. But as I said, apart from copyright, there might be other laws or regulations regarding the publication of materials. This partains materials with restricted access, for example, because of data protection laws (documents younger than 90-125 years, depending on the country). You may own a copy of such materials for personal use, but you may not publish it to the general public. You may use the data from such materials in your research, but you have to make sure it does not violate any data protection laws when publishing such data (as usual with any personal and genealogical data).

Who owns a copyright of a translated work that you have paid for? Generally speaking, translations and transcriptions are also protected by copyright law, because they can be regarded as an original piece of work. So, it's still the author who owns the copyright and decides the rules regarding the use of those materials. Exceptions are "work made for hire", but I think it may assume some sort of formal contract. In genealogy, though, I think it also depends on the content and extent of the translation. The general rule of thumb is that if it's something you can easily reframe in your own words (simple facts, dates, other publicly available information) then it can't be copyrighted and you don't need to reference it. Sharing citations or whole copies of documents translated and transferred to you by some third party, however, might be, and in my opinion is, a violation of the rights of the original author (unless the author has allowed it or made it a public domain).

Long story short, if you are not the author of the original work, or if the work was not officially commissioned by you (proven with a contract) you probably don't own the copyright of the piece and have to follow the instructions set by the author of the original piece or the copyright owner. Just by buying or owning a copy of some copyrihgted content does not grant you copyright over the content.

In addition, as a general best practice, I'd suggest considering the following aspects before sharing or publishing archival records or copies of such records:

  1. Are the materials freely accessible to the public in the archive without any restrictions?
  2. Does the archive have any restrictions on copying or publishing any of its content? If unsure, see the policies of the archive or ask them by email.
  3. When using derivative work (including someone's translations, transcriptions), or the original work of some other researcher, always ask for their permission, if it's not made clear otherwise.
  4. Always reference the original document and the author, even if you legally don't have to.

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