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Capturing the Living Past: An Oral History Primer

3. Legal and Ethical Issues: First Things First

Who owns your words?

You do. And your narrator or interviewee - the person you interview - owns his or her own words, too.

Why does it matter?

The content of an oral history interview is an original document created by two people: the interviewer and the narrator. As such, it is subject to copyright law and may not be used unless both people give their permission. When spoken words are recorded in tangible form, they are protected by copyright, and copyright belongs to the speaker of those words.

How do I get permission to use an interview?

Organizations that sponsor oral history projects want the materials their projects generate to be as useable as possible. Consequently, they ask the narrator and interviewer to sign a release form giving the sponsoring organization their copyright interest and, thus, their permission to use the interview information for publication, public programming or other public dissemination. Without this agreement, interview participants would retain their copyrights, and anyone who wanted to use the materials would have to obtain individual permission from each interview participant.

Individuals and family historians who want to conduct one or more oral history interviews should consider donating their materials to a local library, museum or other historical organization, too. Family history can yield interesting and important insights into the history of a particular time and place, which can be useful to present and future historians. Therefore, these interviewers should also use release forms for their interviews.

I realize this primer can't provide legal advice, but what legal and ethical issues should I know about?

Guidelines published by the Oral History Association, the national professional organization of oral history practitioners, outline legal and ethical standards for oral historians to follow, whether they plan one interview or many. Here is a brief summary of those guidelines:

But I just want to interview my Grandma about her childhood. Does all this legal and ethical stuff apply to me, too?

Yes. No matter how close or casual an interviewer's relationship to the narrator, their rights relating to their spoken words and their understanding and wishes for the resulting recording must be respected. The legal and ethical parameters laid out by oral historians assure this respect.

Where can I get more information about legal and ethical issues in oral history?

Detailed information about legal and ethical issues is available in the Oral History Association's publications, Oral History and the Law and Oral History Evaluation Guidelines, (Carlisle, Pa.: Oral History Association, 2002).


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