Now you can upload full census pages without copyright violation worries. [closed]

+29 votes

I've been at this for a while but I think I've finally cracked the code on how to obtain open source US census images.  

Unfortunately, it seems that census images taken from Family Search and Ancestry are governed by their license with the US government.  You can download the images and use them for your own personal use but they forbid uploading and sharing on public websites.  In other words, you shouldn't put them on profiles and free space pages.

Of course the "fair use" expception can be applied but to fit into the definition of fair use you can only include the information about the person or family you're covering.  This means that a crop of a few lines on the census may be allowed but uploading the whole page is out.

If you want to upload the whole page, there is hope: has obtained the entirety of the census image database and they offer it on their website.  You can find the census records here:

The problem is, and it is (was) a big problem, is that the images aren't searchable in their entirety and they seem to be uploaded in a random way so that all the states and counties are mixed up.

I've been playing around with the database for a while and I found that if you take the identifying information from Ancestry or Family Search, specifically the reel number, you can find the specific reel (about 700 pages) that your record will be in.

I tried searching the link above, scrolling down farther and farther, looking for my reel and there are thousands.  The easiest thing to do is just grab one reel and then replace the reel number in the URL with the reel you are looking for.

For example, on the profile of Newton Walter Baty (1866 - 1953), there is a source for the 1880 census:

"United States Census, 1880," database with images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 29 February 2016), Newton Baty in household of Saml H Baty, Knoxville, Marion, Iowa, United States; citing enumeration district ED 125, sheet 698C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 0354; FHL microfilm 1,254,354.

Going back to the census page you will see the link for the 1880 census:

Once you click on this link you will see several reel links:

Vol Reel 0943 - 1880 New York Federal Population
Vol Reel 1275 - 1880 Tennesee Federal

and so on.

Click on any of them, in this case, reel 0943 and you will be taken to this page:

Looking at the Family Search source above you can see that Newton's record was found on reel (roll) 0354.  Just take the link above and replace 0943 with 0354:

Once I clicked on that link, I find that I'm at:

Reel 0354 - 1880 Iowa Federal Population Census Schedules - Mahaska (cont'd: ED 175, sheet 17-end)and Marion Counties

And this matches, as you cans see from the FS source above, we're looking for Marion County, Iowa.

Once you're inside the right reel, you can now search by name for your ancestor.  So far, I have not had any luck with the search function.  So I went looking for my page number.  Scroll up to the top left of the image and find the page number and then go to the Archive reel and find the corresponding page number.  Once you match the page numbers, you'll find your record and it is open source.  You can share it to your heart's content.

Family search image for Newton Baty: search image for Newton Baty:

Hope that this is useful to a few folks.  I welcome your comments and questions.

WikiTree profile: Newton Baty
closed with the note: Chase's answer that sharing of Ancestry and FS docs makes this whole exercise moot.  Thanks Chase!
in Policy and Style by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
closed by SJ Baty
Hi SJ,

This is interesting info, but just curious why you feel it's necessary to upload the full page of each of the pertinent census images to each of the profiles of those that have been enumerated on the page? Is it not sufficient to include the link to the existing particular FamilySearch census record/image with your source citation/abstract?
Hi SJ, interesting subject, it must have taken you awhile to figure all that out.   Are you going to put this information on a free space for people who desire to put a census record on a profile?  I've seen a few profiles that have a picture of a census on it, but I didn't see where they copied it from.
Some folks (including myself) sometimes like to upload the whole page.  This can be for asthetic purposes and sometimes for practical reasons: if there are siblings, parents, or in-laws on other parts of the census page it is sometimes useful to have the whole page because it can show the proximity of the families.

I've read many G2G threads on the subject of using FS and Ancestry census (and other record) pages as crop snippets under the Fair Use clause and I'm not sure that the issue is fully settled.  I do now know how to quickly find the record at and using an image from there may save some heartache should it ever be determined that even fair use crops are disallowed.

PK, that is a great idea and one I had not thought of.  I've just added to my "to do" list to create a space page with this info.

thanks! yes

Oh wow! I like to use a lot of Hungary 1869 census images in my research as sometimes it's the only census available I have for reconstruction a family. Thank you!
Great Job SJ!  Lately, I've only been providing links to the FamilySearch census records...... but I'm concerned that some day FamilySearch won't be free.   Thanks for sharing this approach!!

7 Answers

+14 votes
Best answer

Neither US Censuses, nor any other work created by the US government, are protected by the US copyright laws. See, eg, Images of the US Censuses made by third parties (such as are also not protected by US copyright laws because, there must be some creative element in order for an image to be protected. Mere photocopies/scans of public domain material, such as images of US Census pages are therefore not protected by copyright law, despite what Ancestry or anyone else might say.

This issue, however, is that when you sign up with Ancestry and other websites you agree to their terms of use. which restrict your use of the images. This is by contract law, not copyright. HOWEVER, only prohibits use of large portions of materials. The following is from their Terms and Conditions:

Some Ancestry Content may be in the public domain, and yet also subject to restrictions on reuse. We refer to Ancestry Content in the public domain as “Public Domain Content.” You are free to use a small portion of individual photos and documents that are Public Domain Content, but you must obtain our written permission to use more than a small portion of these collections

Since US Census are not protected by copyright law, that means they are public domain content. A single page of a US Census seems pretty clearly a small portion of a US Census (the document). This means it's OK to repost individual US Census pages from on wikitree. They are really only concerned about someone copying their entire database to compete with their service. Copying individual pages here or there is OK.

by Chase Ashley G2G6 Pilot (258k points)
selected by SJ Baty
Thank you very much Chase for posting this.  Before I came to WT this was my understanding, albeit through rumor and second hand sharing rather than reading it on a .gov website myself.  Actually, when I first started I remember arguing this position (because I had read it elsewhere) and it was shot down by other Treers who gave the exception that it violated Ancestry or FS user agreements to share images.  

This is refreshing news.

My only question would be if this same rationale could be applied to state and county documents?

The answer appears to be that it depends on the state:

Of course, the older stuff would be public domain anyway.

The other point is that, even if a state or local government did have a current copyright on their material, there is no way they would care if people were posting a page or two here or there (versus publishing their entire state code or somethng).

Thanks for your post Chase.  I’ve made these points several times as well but got tired of the criticism.  It’s a recurrent source of annoyance that copyright and ‘terms of use’ keep getting conflated when they have nothing to do with each other.  As you’ve noted, Ancestry’s terms allow for posting individual documents on web pages.  Many have confused “small portion” with the so-called snippet view when it’s actually referring to a small portion of a collection.  FamilySearch’s terms are even more generic and restrictive.  When I questioned them about posting to Wikitree, their answer was “The U.S. Census is not a copyrighted material.  As such, you can do and copy, print or whatever you wish with it.  It should matter not, where your copy came from.”  Regardless, it’s not up to Wikitree or its users to enforce the terms and conditions of an unrelated website.  Similarly, when FamilySearch or Ancestry licenses documents from a records custodian, any usage restrictions are solely between those organizations, nobody else.  The Honor Code requires respect of copyrights, not being the internet police.  Also, as you’ve noted, photocopying or scanning public domain documents does not generate copyright protection for those scans.  Once a document is in the public domain, it remains so forever, including any copies/scans/photographs/etc.  Courts settled this years ago in Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp.  Many seem to believe that Ancestry or FamilySearch are opposed to having scattered non-copyrighted documents from their repositories posted on other websites.  I don’t think they mind at all when they are given credit as it’s good advertising.



Great points Kerry - I had not seen your comment until today!
Thanks for the feedback SJ.
still sharing this, 8 months later...
+9 votes
Well done SJ Baty & if you will excuse my spelling thoughts

by Roger Davey G2G6 Mach 3 (32.4k points)

Oops, and thanks blush

+12 votes


There's another method I use to achieve the same goal.

Step 1: Save this link I know it shows 1920-Virginia-Lee County...but that doesn't matter. Just copy that (or any other 'starter link') and use the 'paste & go' feature in your browser to get to that page.

Step 2: Once you're in on that page, you'll see at the top of the page where it says "Search" 1920 Virginia, Lee census. Highlight that text and edit it to say 1880, Iowa, Marion census. (make sure your comma and spaces are exact!) Now click the "GO" button to the right. Depending on your browser set-up etc... you may see a boat load of thumbnail icons--this is confusing to my brain so I always click the "Show Details" button to the right of the banner near the top to get a text list. You'll see the list of all the REELS below.

Step 3: From your example (fresh version of citation from FS) ""United States Census, 1880," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 11 August 2017), Newton Baty in household of Saml H Baty, Knoxville, Marion, Iowa, United States; citing enumeration district ED 125, sheet 698C, NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), FHL microfilm 1,254,354."

Note also above the citation where it says 'Document Information:' sometimes that's where the Reel # is hidden as Affiliate Film Number 0354. Another key thing to note is Image Number 00680.

So, you scroll through the reel list , get to 354 and open it up. I use the icons on the bottom right corner to go to one page view and zoom in a time or two. You'll also note the the bar at the bottom of the page (this example starts on 1/731)...grab the round button and drag to the right or click in the bar to move it --get it close to 680/731 and start looking at the top of the pages. Its almost always off a page or two. In this case, page 698C is on page 679/731.
I've been doing it this way so long that I just kinda do it....I hope my explanation makes sense and I didn't miss anythingblush
As far as the value of uploading census pages; as any seasoned researcher into humans in general and genealogy specifically knows the answer to that is depends. 
If you're researching a small hand full of families in a western Virginia county in the early 1800s--YES do it. You are going to find that all the wives and husbands of all the sons and the daughters came from those few neighboring households and you'll find it very handy to have that image quickly available to view already here at wikitree and you'll likely end up with everyone on any given page linked to it (another handy navigation tool when jumping from family to family). 
 If you're following up on one of their descendants that lived among the hoi polloi in 1940 Los Angeles--that census image is likely not going to add any value and the link alone suffices.
Just my 2nd cup of coffee thoughts-subject to change after the 3rd......
by Nick Andreola G2G6 Mach 7 (78.4k points)

Thanks Nick.

I'm running into a wall at step 2:

Step 2: Once you're in on that page, you'll see at the top of the page where it says "Search" 1920 Virginia, Lee census. Highlight that text and edit it to say 1880, Iowa, Marion census. (make sure your comma and spaces are exact!) Now click the "GO" button to the right. Depending on your browser set-up etc... you may see a boat load of thumbnail icons--this is confusing to my brain so I always click the "Show Details" button to the right of the banner near the top to get a text list. You'll see the list of all the REELS below.

I'm not seeing a "show details" button.  I see "show as list," is that what you mean?

I see it now, you have to first change from thumbnail view by selecting "show as list" and then the button appears for "show details."

At step 3:

So, you scroll through the reel list , get to 354 and open it up

I find it much faster to click any thumbnail and then just change the URL xxxxunit to 0354unit and it takes me straight to the proper reel without any scrolling.

Sorry! Its tough to break a routine down into text!
+8 votes
Thanks SJ,

I like using census records to track specific ancestors as they migrate across the US from 1790 on. Saving these records for other members to see is a time saving service!
by Carol Baldwin G2G6 Pilot (755k points)
+11 votes
As far as the usefulness of an entire census page goes, I have found on a number of census pages clues or supporting evidence as to the wife's birth family or other interesting relationships.  For example, I found a great grandcestor on a 1800s census for Tennessee.  In studying the page I realized that he and his wife were living quite near her parents and not his, although both families lived in the same county.  Suggests that he knew his older brothers would get the family farm and he needed to look elsewhere, or perhaps some other interesting aspects of their lives.  Which in turn interfaces with the question of why they were each buried in their respective family cemeteries.  I guess that my point is that no one or couple or family existed by themselves, and occasionally a view into their possible relationships with those who lived around them gives greater depth to their lives than basic BMD stats.
by Art Black G2G6 Mach 5 (50.1k points)
Thanks for the star, SJ, much appreciated!
+4 votes
SJ -- This is incredible!  Thank you for digging out "the truth" and taking the time to describe it fully in text!!  I am going to use this method from here on out.

I am already a big fan of and this cements the deal...
by J Stewart G2G6 Mach 2 (22.2k points)
+3 votes
SJ Baty -- Second reply...

Yes, this is relatively valuable, but after spending 2+ hours trying to find a Reel Number, here's a hint:  From the line labeled "GS Film Number," the LAST FOUR DIGITS are the Reel Number.  F'rinstance:

GS Film Number 1241321 translates to Reel Number 1321.

I hope this saves someone else a couple of minutes...

I have NO experience in linking to images (either FamilySearch or;  is that worth a try????
by J Stewart G2G6 Mach 2 (22.2k points)

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