Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Genealogical Ownership and Isolationism
For good or bad, the genealogical community reflects the attitudes and prejudices of our larger cultures and societies. When I was a lot younger than I am now, I used to explore the Colorado Plateau around the area where I lived. The entire countryside was open to exploration and the only limitation was the rule that you left a gate open, if it was already open, and closed if it was already closed. I got pretty good at opening and closing the old barbed wire gates.
Years later, I went to retrace some of my earlier ramblings and found an entirely different situation. The land hadn't changed. It was the same desolate, almost barren, high altitude desert I had always known. But the fences and gates were now all locked and had huge warning signs threatening prosecution or death to anyone who dared walk or ride over the owner's very private property. I could not understand how you could own the desert anymore than I could understand how you could own the wind. When I looked across the now locked fences and gates, I could see miserable little shacks and nearly abandoned house trailers where the people lived. What were they afraid of? What items of so much value were hidden in those miserable, junky lots that were being protected?
Today, in the genealogical community, I am faced with the same insular, protective attitude. By the way, every once and while when I see a no trespassing sign, I go back and re-research the Arizona law on the subject. You might be surprised at how little legal support there is for enforcing a no trespassing sign. Back to genealogy. In genealogy, the attitude and claims involve our family lines. In a recent pate of online discussion about FamilySearch.org's Family Tree, I was mildly amused to see so many comments from genealogists who were not going to use Family Tree because they didn't want some one to mess with "their data." It might be a revelation to some of these folks, but the fact is that you don't own your genealogical data. All of your effort, your sweat and tears, does not give you any claim to ownership. Posting a "No Trespassing" sign on your data is just as silly as the landowners up on the Plateau.
But what about copyright? You can't copyright ideas and you can't copyright facts. If you are so wrapped up in your ownership of the data you have accumulated, I just hope that it doesn't die with you. By all means don't prevent this loss by making the information freely available to anyone who in interested on a unified family tree such as FamilySearch.org's Family Tree. The real answer to the ownership interest in genealogy is a simple progression: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024...
This progression shows the number of potential grandparents you have at each generation into the past. The actual number may vary due to intermarriage of your family lines, but the number is still very large just back a few generation. Everyone of the descendants of every one of these ancestors has exactly the same claim to the genealogy as you do.
Of course, you can keep your own information on your own database using your own program. So what is the issue with sharing the information? Are you afraid you will have deal with someone who might not agree with you? As Harry Truman once supposedly said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." I fully understand that there may be reasons for not wanting to put your information on any one family tree program. What I cannot understand is the concept that you don't share your information because you own it. You may have heard something some time about the "work product" doctrine. This is a legal rule that information accumulated in the course of trial preparation is not discoverable. I has nothing to do with protecting genealogical information.
If you have anything that you think you own, then don't put it online. But reconsider your ownership claims when it comes to genealogy. If you have concerns about privacy, they likely come from lack of information about what is truly private or not private. Dead people do not have a claim to privacy.
This topic seems to come up constantly. I am just sorry that people will lose the tremendous opportunity afforded by having an online, unified family tree because they are afraid someone will walk on their precious desert property.