Terms of use: EllisIsland.org

Don’t post Ellis Island site images

SS Geo Washington, image NOT from EllisIsland.org

Terms of use (or terms of service) are a real issue for genealogists, and The Legal Genealogist began an occasional series on terms of use back on April 27 with “A terms of use intro.”1

As a quick reminder, terms of use are the agreements we are asked to abide by when we access information — even information that is purely factual and/or purely in the public domain — on a website.

Today, next in this occasional series, we’re going to look at the terms of use of a website many genealogists use and where we may not stop and think about the restrictions the website has imposed on the use of its information: it’s the website of the The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. (SOLEIF), on the web at http://www.ellisisland.org.

Now SOLEIF is a private foundation working in partnership with the National Park Service to restore both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.2 Its website contains “25 million arrival records and over 900 ships of passage pictures in the Ellis Island Archives” and the intent of the website is to make those records “available to everyone.”

Not so fast. Available, yes. Useful, maybe not. And that’s because of that website’s terms of use.

In particular, the terms of service provide that “you may use, access, download, copy, store, manipulate, reformat, print or display any Information (from the website) and solely for your personal, non-commercial use” and that “you may not otherwise copy, download, store, manipulate, reformat, distribute, display, publish (including, but not limited to, on the internet), create a derivative work from, resell or make any commercial use of, or make any other use of, the Service or any Information contained therein.”3

What that means, in plain English, is that you can find the record showing your grandfather’s arrival in the United States and download a copy to your computer for your own personal use. You can print a copy and hang it on your wall, but you may not post it in your blog or on your website or send a copy to Aunt Mabel in Seattle. Not because the record is copyrighted — it’s not, since U.S. government records created by govenmernt employees for governmental purposes can’t be copyrighted — but because your contract with that website says you can’t.

There happens to be a good reason for this restriction: the Foundation is supported by selling copies of the ship manifests and images, and if folks just grabbed them and posted them online without restrictions, the Foundation’s income would be severely hampered. So it simply doesn’t allow general use of the actual images it posts on its site.

Like most other websites, the Ellis Island website says you can go ahead and ask for permission to make other uses of the information. It provides contact information on the site and specific information as to how to get broader permissions (“please contact SOLEIF by writing to SOLEIF Copyright Agent, 17 Battery Place #210, New York, NY 10004”).

But the bottom line is, if you use EllisIsland.org, don’t post the images from that site on your website, or your blog, or anywhere else online. If you do, the Foundation, “in its sole discretion, may terminate your access to the Service, or any portion thereof, without notice for any reason, including but not limited to if SOLEIF believes that you have breached these Terms of Service. SOLEIF may, in its sole discretion at any time, change the content or services offered on the Service or discontinue providing the Service, or any portion thereof, without notice.”4

Take it or leave it.


SOURCES

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, citing U.S. government sources.

  1. A terms of use intro,The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012.
  2. See “About the Foundation,” EllisIsland.org (http://www.ellisisland.org : accessed 7 May 2012).
  3. Terms of Use,” EllisIsland.org (http://www.ellisisland.org : accessed 7 May 2012).
  4. Ibid.
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11 Responses to Terms of use: EllisIsland.org

  1. It seems to me that if we’re allowed to download and store the images for our own personal use, they shouldn’t have so much code in there to try to prevent us from saving them. I guess they really don’t want us to do even that much.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re absolutely right: they DON’T want us even doing a screen capture. And I understand it, in a way. Then again I’m a little less forgiving of them since they spelled my father’s middle name wrong in the Immigrant Wall of Honor…

  2. Pam Reid says:

    I know that you don’t provide legal advice on your blog, but perhaps you can clarify something for me. It is my understanding the NARA holdings – not donated materials – actual NARA holdings produced by Federal agencies, are in the public domain. I have been using snippets from census images obtained from the NARA site to create collages for blog posts about families in the 1940 Census. Am I correct that these images, held by NARA, are indeed public domain images and my use of the snippets needs no consent?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You are absolutely correct — anything you get directly from the government that was produced by a government employee for the government is totally public domain and, since you got it from the government, there’s no terms of use issue.

      • Pam Reid says:

        Thank you, Judy. I try to stay pretty up to date with this sort of thing, but your Ellis Island post made me think twice and thinking twice I believe, is the best course of action with anything we find on the internet.

  3. fernando says:

    HOW CAN A PRIVATE FOUNDATION LIKE ELLIS ISLAND OR ANY PRIVATE CITIZEN TO GRAB SOME PUBLIC DOCUMENTS, PUBLISH THEM IN A WEBSITE,START SELLING THEM AS ONLY AGENT AND FORBID EVERYBODY TO USE THEM COMMERCIALLY? IF ELLIS ISLAND CAN DO THAT, ANY WEBSITE CAN DO IT WITH A DIGITIZED EDITION OF A PRE-1923 BOOK IN PUBLIC DOMAIN. IT IS ENOUGH TO WRITE THAT IN THE TERMS OF USE OF SUCH WEBSITE LIKE SOLEIF DID! TRUE OR FALSE?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      TURN YOUR CAPS LOCK KEY OFF SO YOU STOP SHOUTING, OKAY???

      Yes, the fact is that anybody — including you or me — can ask to get paid for anything we do the work to digitize and put online. Nobody is entitled to demand that documents be made available free. The world doesn’t work that way.

  4. fernando says:

    Thanks, Judy. That means that the NYTimes is correct when applying the copyright notice to pre-1923 articles. Is this true?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Actually, no, they’re not. The reason a website can charge for digitizing items is because of contract law — terms of service — rather than copyright law. So the NY Times articles published before 1923 are not copyright-protected, but may be restricted by the contract between a website and its users. And remember: the issue is only between this website and its users — if somebody else has the same item and chooses to make it available free, the first website can’t stop it.

  5. fernando says:

    Thanks, Judy. I will check the pre-1923 NYT articles terms of use. Thanks a lot.

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