Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

She stole my genealogy!

In rummaging through an online family tree service, George was surprised and angered to find his whole genealogy file posted by someone he didn't even know. He immediately sent several E-mails accusing the person of stealing his genealogy. Why did George believe that he owned the family tree information?

The issue of ownership of information goes much deeper into our society than the legal issues of copyright. Humans are definitely territorial. Try sitting in someone's accustomed seat at church for example, or taking someone's parking space. Just drive down any country road and read all the no trespassing signs, not to forget all the wars fought over territorial boundaries. Unfortunately, this same instinct carries over into the world of genealogy.

To begin, George probably did not think a lot about who owned the information he was gathering into "his" file. Even though he may have paid, in money, for some of the information he obtained, it is unlikely he thought about how and where the information was originally gathered and stored. His idea of ownership came about a result of the fact that this particular pile of information was on his side of the fence, in other words, putting the information on his computer, in his database program gave his automatic ownership of the information. Although he had and has no legal right to the information superior to anyone else who could obtain it from the same source, once he has control over the information, it is now his.

This attitude is rampant among genealogists (and a lot of other people too) and on occasion, can dramatically interfere with family relations and any common interest others may have in their own ancestors which happen to be ours also. I have seen countless time where people as so possessive of their own "genealogy" they are afraid to even let me look at it on the slim chance I will steal their information.

Since we have such a huge and active community of people willing to share their genealogy, we seldom see public evidence of the hoarders. But they do exist. I think there is partially, an underlying feeling that somehow the genealogy has some kind of monetary value and that if I give it away, I will lose the ability to "make money" out of all my effort. This attitude is hard to understand given the almost non-existent market for personal family history books, many of which cannot even be given away to relatives. I speak from experience, having boxes of family history books in my garage that I practically have to pay family members to take.

Like many challenges, hoarding of genealogy can be addressed by kindness and education. Sometimes, the person just needs to realize that in order for their work to have any value, it must be shared with others in the same family. How many boxes of valuable genealogical information have been destroyed by family members who did not appreciate what was there, because the person who accumulated the information did not share it, in a meaningful way, with those in the family who may have had an interest?


  1. It sounds kind of selfish to me. Why not share the information and memories with others? Not to mention that sharing genealogical data will bless the lives of past and future generations!--Gaylene Glenn

  2. If it was random information found lying in a box I could understand your argument. But if it is information you have spent time and money gathering, carefully, checking evidence and making a note of sources etc. I can understand why people might be wary about releasing it to all and sundry! I don't like sharing my carefully gathered information with "name collectors", but if someone is a serious, and interested I have no problem in helping them out.

  3. Quality research demands that all sources be cited. If you use someone else's work, then that person's work should be acknowledged. If you use a particular document to determine a conclusion, then you must site that record as a source.
    Other serious researchers judge the quality of material by checking up on sources, verifying results and by determining the value or quality of those sources used.
    If someone I show my work to publishes it without acknowledging my efforts and his/her indebtedness to them, then, yes, he/she has stolen my work.

  4. Its true that names and dates aren't "ownable", but if someone writes up their family history in a narrative format, it is copyrighted, and any reproduction without permission is illegal.

  5. I spent hundreds of dollars doing my research. I dont mind if someone uses it. I would just hope that they would do the same. The only thing that they own is what they right. Records that i have gather I dont own them. no one dose as far as I'm concerned. This is nothing but a hobby for me. I enjoy it. I have helped alot of people getting there records. DO I own them? No I dont! This is just my apinion. Everyone has there own.....