Stop Licensing Fees for Public Records

Access to New York City’s records—including birth, marriage, and death records—is under siege by proposed changes!

We need your help to protect access to these important materials.

10/08/2020 Update: ​We have an update after communicating with the New York City Department of Records and Information Services. Click here to read.

A brief summary

The New York City Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS) holds millions of materials and is the key gateway to access various birth, marriage, and death records for New York City before 1925.

In their own words, “the Municipal Archives comprises the largest local government archive in North America…the Archives hold the records depicting the daily work of city government, including paper records…still and moving images, ledgers and docket books, vital records, cartographic materials, blueprints, and sound recordings.”1

DORIS operates under New York City’s rules and has an existing practice which requires licensing fees when reproducing materials from their holdings.

Proposed changes to these rules modify the language to mandate licensing fees when using these public records for educational, scholarly, non-profit, and media use.

As proposed, this general statement limits individuals including genealogists, biographers, and other researchers from sharing or publishing these public records with others.

While we understand the need to pay a reasonable fee for the reproduction of a record, we strongly object to any language that even hints at limitations on our rights to use and share these public records.

How might this impact you?

If these changes are accepted, you might be forced to pay for records multiple times—once to obtain the copy from DORIS, and then again if you want to share the record with others. Read below to understand some potential situations. 

Scenario 1: You paid for a copy of a death certificate. Now you must pay again if you want to share the copy you purchased.

You locate the death certificate of an ancestor who died in Brooklyn in 1917 and pay DORIS $15.00 for a reproduction of that record. 

You want to share that record with other family members, in online family tree, as proof for application to a lineage society, or in a printed history you are preparing for an upcoming family event. 

Under the rules, before you can do any of the items above, you are required fill out a “Permission to Publish/Use Contract” (MA-45) and pay an additional $15.00 (per item) to “license” this image from DORIS. 

Scenario 2: You want to share images of 100 certificates as part of a research project. Now you must pay at least $1,500!

You are researching a project involving the lives of 25 families who lived in the same area between 1900 and 1920 and have collected more than 100 birth, marriage, and death records as part of your research. 

You wish to create a free educational website that highlights these families and includes images of the actual documents you found in your research. 

As written, the rules require you to pay a licensing fee to DORIS of at least $15.00 per item to do so, making your minimum cost $1,500, after completing the “Permission to Publish/Use Contract” (MA-45). 

Scenario 3: You solved a mystery with a record from DORIS and paid for a copy. If you want to write about your research and use the image, you owe at least another $15!

You have used records from DORIS (perhaps the Bodies in Transit materials) to solve a mystery in your family tree and wish to publish an article in your local newsletter, the New York Researcher, or on your own blog. 

Keep in mind: you might have already paid for someone to search the collection at DORIS and paid for a photocopy of the relevant pages to be made.

Before you can do so, under the current rules, you must request permission (MA-45) and pay a minimum licensing fee of $15.00 (per item) before sharing the image in your article. 

What you can do

Submit your own comment

Make sure to submit your own comment telling DORIS that you are opposed to licensing fees for public records by October 23, 2020. Send your comment to DORISrules@records.nyc.gov.

Click here to submit your own comment

Sign a public comment

Add your name to the NYG&B's public comment—the more names the better! 

Click here to add your name

Participate in the online public hearing

There will be an online public hearing about the proposed changes. Sign up to attend on October 23, 2020, at 11:00 AM ET. Learn more at rules.cityofnewyork.us/rule/32136.

Click here to learn more

Share this important information with others

We need as much support as we can possibly get—spread the word on social media or elsewhere to call attention to this important issue. 

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How DORIS plans to limit the personal use of public records through licensing fees

Proposed revisions to two sections (2-06 and 3-01) of the city rules limit the use of these records.

The section outlining other fees (2-06) places a $15.00 (and up):

“publication or license fee for any use of a reproduction of a still image, document, or other archival item (except moving images) in any type of product or media including post-card, poster, book, magazine, newspaper, newsletter, film, video, television, or web-site, per item based on the type of use. The publication or license fee start at $15.00 for educational, scholarly or non-profit products or media, and increase for commercial products or media.”2

The use of archives and library materials (from section 3-01) includes unnecessary restrictions in sections B (2) and B (3):

“B (2) Reproductions are provided for the researcher’s personal use only. Reproductions may not be reduplicated, published, or transferred to another individual or institution. 

B (3) Permission to publish, reprint, broadcast, re-duplicate, or make other use of Archives of Library materials may be granted subject to fees and the conditions stated in the Publish/Use Contract form (MA-45)…”3

How would these changes affect me?

The ability for an individual or organization to share, post or otherwise distribute public records in nearly any medium requires a minimum licensing fee of $15.00 per item. In theory, if a single year of death certificates include 10,000 entries, the total licensing fee would be a minimum of $150,000.   

Though the Department of Records and Information Services has been charging licensing fees for a considerable amount of time, this measure places a financial barrier for organizations and individuals. 

Why does this not make sense? 

After paying for a copy of a document, you must also pay a licensing fee before you…

  • share copies with family members or other researchers;  
  • include these items in a printed family history or biography;  
  • share the document via social media;
  • include the document in an online article;
  • upload images to an online family tree; or  
  • donate copies of these materials to another individual or institution. 

Licensing fees for public records created with taxpayer funds are illogical and an affront to the very notion of accessible public records. The fact that this practice has been ongoing for a number of years does not make it right. 

While reasonable fees for acquiring copies of materials (including vital records) are understandable, we firmly disagree with rules that limit an individual or non-profit organization’s rights to share and use those records. Limiting the rights of someone researching in public records to share their findings continues a dangerous precedent.

What do we propose? 

No restrictions or licensing fees should be placed on the use of public records for personal, educational, scholarly, non-profit, or media purposes.

Public records created by taxpayer funds should be freely accessible.

Click here to take action

Update (October 8, 2020)

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Wow! What an impact many of you have made in just 24 hours. BUT WE NEED EVERYONE'S COMMENTS IN THE PUBLIC RECORD by October 23.

In response to your initial comments, we heard the positive news that DORIS does not "necessarily" intend to charge license fees for using genealogy records. DORIS recognizes the proposed changes are unclear and has indicated some clarifications will be made before the final rule is published. BUT...there is no guarantee that we will be consulted in advance on the FINAL RULE.

While the application of licensing fees may not apply to vital records, it is not clear if personal usage of a vital record certificate is still at risk beyond the purchase and use of the certificate by one person. As written, the rules limit individual use of these records, "Reproductions are provided for the researcher's personal use only. Reproductions may not be reduplicated, published, or transferred to another individual or institution."

We still need to consider that we do not know what we will find in the final rule before publication. This is also about the wider licensing wording, e.g. "permission to use", and the restrictive language and fees that apply to other "archival sources" which are public records at MUNI. As written, the rules still require a license for educational, scholarly, non-profit, and media use. Clarification is needed here: genealogists are educators and scholars!

We are anxious to see in writing, clarifications DORIS intends to make.

The hearing date is fixed as October 23… please continue to inform others and ask everyone to act by learning more by sharing this page.

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1. “Municipal Archives,” New York City Records and Information Services New York City Department of Records and Information Services, accessed October 5, 2020, https://www1.nyc.gov/site/records/about/municipal-archives.page   |   Back to text

2. https://rules.cityofnewyork.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/doris_notice_o...  |   Back to text

3. https://rules.cityofnewyork.us/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/doris_notice_o...  |   Back to text