It is all covered by copyright laws. From the U.S. Copyright Office: “The term of copyright for a particular work depends on several factors, including whether it has been published, and, if so, the date of first publication. As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years. For an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 95 years from the year of its first publication or a term of 120 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first. For works first published prior to 1978, the term will vary depending on several factors.”
Looking at the law, for example if you are using the photo or drawing or written work (that was done by someone else) and you are only using it in a non-profit, personal format, such as to place with the family history scrapbook or hang on a wall — then you can use the item. That is known as ‘Fair Use’. It is always good however, to do give credit to the person from where the item came from. Include their full name and the book or web site you found the item. Better yet, write them and get permission, then there is no question.
If a family tree is your own creation, if the photos are from the family photo album, then yes you can use them with your own family history. Keep in mind, if you are using photos that belong to a living relative, do get their permission also.
If you are fortunate to locate photos in the public domain (those no longer under copyright restriction or were given freely by the original creator), especially those in the US National Archives or in a state archive, you can freely use those. Place the source for future researchers who will see your work.
The most important is not to ‘lift’, or claim as your own work, anything — family tree, research, photos or written stories without getting permission from the creator and then if they do give permission, do credit them. Do the same on your own created work, place a statement at the bottom that it is or is not copyrighted and that you request anyone to contact you if they are interested in using it.
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