When writing a biography or family history, your content will be the result of research. For the most recent generations, you may be using first-hand accounts from family stories, interviews or letters. As you get back further, you'll have only records, which will be the basis of your story. But as you build up context, you'll most likely be relying on information that someone else has written, either during the past or about the past. Be aware that ALL writing is copyrighted automatically to the writer the moment it is written, regardless of where it is published or even if it is published. Photography and art are the same. Nothing on the Internet is free of copyright unless it specifically says ' in the public domain'. 

Therefore, you should always check the copyright and permission policy before using anything you find online. Also know that ‘fair use’ policies allow for the non-commercial use of materials that are copyright to someone else. Fair use may apply if the user is not making a profit from them. Fair use particularly applies to educational and research-based materials.

This policy, however, says that to avoid plagiarism, information/illustrations from any single source cannot make up more than 20% of the finished piece -- regardless of what that finished piece is (book, article, blog post, presentation, video, podcast, film).

As a result, you should always use several sources for each researched section — at least three but ideally four, five or more to avoid using too much content from any one source.

You must also credit all those sources in one way or another. A bibliography is the easiest way, but  you should add citations for all images and direct quotes, preferably with a link (in a footnote or appendix). All material that does not have citations must be completely rewritten in your own words.

Regardless of whether it is necessary by law, it is always respectful to give credit to where you found information or at least provide links for more information.

If you publish in a published magazine or journal, you will need to provide a bibliography for all source material, even if you don’t quote it directly. The publication will fact check and needs to know where you got your facts, first to ensure there are no errors but also to protect themselves from liability. 

Most commercial publications have a computer application that searches for published material that matches the words in your submission. If they find a passage copied directly from another work (including on a website) without quotes and/or citations, they will not publish for fear of copyright infringement. There are free applications online that you can use to double-check your work. You can use the same programs to see if someone else has copied you. (Search online for ‘plagiarism checker’ or ‘plagiarism detector’.)

The safest way to avoid plagiarism is to do your research, learn the material by heart, then put it away and write from what’s in your head in your own words. Then be sure to credit all the resources you used.

If you are ever tempted to use someone's work and claim it as your own, imagine how you would feel if someone did that to you? Remember that plagiarizing is stealing, plain and simple. If you really want to use something that someone else has created, there are many public domain sources where you can find copyright-free materials. It just takes a little more research.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.com

This and all material on this website copyright KM Lowe and the Relative Writer unless stated otherwise.