Irish Roots

February 14th, 2011

John Grenham


The phrase “intellectual property” has always struck me as an oxymoron. Surely the whole point of an idea is that it can’t be owned? Patents and copyright are artificial restrictions needed to allow those who have created or invested in something original to profit from it, but whose application needs to be tightly controlled. The recent dependence of so much corporate profit on defending dubious patents and copyrights has obscured this primary rationale: concocting a new product to exploit a niche in the yellow fat market should not be an act of copyrightable creativity.

Enough of the hippy rant. The important question for any researcher is “Who owns the records I need?” For published and clearly authored material the situation is clear. Seventy years after the death of authors, their publications leave copyright and become freely reproducible. The same is true of any unpublished material that might survive them. Unpublished records in archives and public repositories are also copyrighted, but purely to protect the public interest. Access is free, along with the use of images or transcripts for private research or study, as long as permission is obtained, but use for commercial purposes requires payment.

But what about older, unpublished manuscript material not in any public repository? Specifically, what about Catholic parish registers? Almost all of these are still physically in the custody of the local parishes. Yes, the notebooks and registers and ink belong to those who bought them and to their heirs, the local parish and the bishop. The information they record is in a different category. By any reading of the law, it is out of copyright. But leaving aside legal questions, if anyone has a moral right to the details in the records, it must be the individuals named, and their descendants. The information belongs to us, in other words.


Comments and suggestions are welcome, to irishrootsatirishtimes.com.

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