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Third edition of USA copyright office compendium – genealogies and instructions


A genealogy is a work that contains information about the history of a particular family. These types of works typically contain a substantial amount of factual information, such as the names of family members, dates of birth, marriage, death, and other significant events, as well as family trees illustrating the relationships between family members.

Frequently, this information is obtained from various sources, such as letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, birth certificates, marriage licenses, church records, census records, wills and probate records, gravestones, and the like. Much of this material may be in the public domain, it may be previously published, it may be previously registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, or it may be separately owned by another copyright owner.

Although facts are not copyrightable, a genealogy may be registered as a literary work if it contains a sufficient amount of written expression. The application should be limited to the text, artwork, and/or photographs that the author contributed to the work (as applicable), the applicant should provide the name of the author who created that material, and the applicant should provide the name of the claimant who owns the copyright in that material.

A registration (draft) for a genealogy does not cover any of the factual information that may be included in the work. Nor does it cover material that is in the public domain, material that has been previously published, material that has been previously registered, or material that is owned by another person or legal entity.

Instructional Texts and Instructional Works

Textbooks and other instructional texts may be registered if the work contains a sufficient amount of original authorship. The statute defines an “instructional text” as “a literary, pictorial, or graphic work prepared for publication and with the purpose of use in systematic instructional activities.” As the legislative history explains, this category includes “textbook material,” regardless of whether the work is published “in book form or prepared in the form of text matter.”

The “basic characteristic” of an instructional text is that the work must be prepared for “use in systematic instructional activities,” rather than a work “prepared for use by a general readership.” Instructional texts are among the nine categories of works that can be specially ordered or commissioned as a work made for hire, provided that the parties expressly agree in a signed written instrument that the work shall be considered a work made for hire.

Other types of instructional works may be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, provided that the work, taken as a whole, contains a sufficient amount of original authorship. Examples of works that may satisfy this requirement include cookbooks, instructions for knitting, crocheting, or needlework, instructions for operating a machine, appliance, or other device, and similar types of works.

If text is the predominant form of authorship, an instructional text or other instructional work may be registered as a nondramatic literary work. If the predominant form of authorship consists of artwork, illustrations, or photographs, the work may be registered as a work of the visual arts.

The Literary Division may register an instructional work that explains how to perform a particular activity, provided that the work contains a sufficient amount of text, photographs, artwork, or other copyrightable expression. Likewise, the Literary Division may register an instructional work that illustrates or describes the end result for a particular activity or technique, such as a drawing of a crochet pattern or a photograph of a product that has been fully assembled.

A registration for a cookbook covers the instructional text that appears in the work, as well as any photographs or illustrations that are owned by the copyright claimant. However, the registration does not cover the list of ingredients that appear in each recipe. Likewise, a registration for a cookbook or other instructional work does not cover the activities described in the work, because procedures, processes, or methods of operation are not subject to copyright protection.