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

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who owns the genealogy? and Why?

In my last post, I addressed the question of who owns the genealogy? Ownership of the information is an interesting question. As an example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) microfilmed the Swedish Church records. A copy of the original microfilms is in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. Another copy went to the Swedish National Archives. The Archives then "sold" the rights to these films to Genline then digitized the microfilm records and put them online in a subscription Website. Now, there is no doubt that the LDS Church microfilm made a valuable contribution to the availability of Swedish records around the world. It is also undoubted that Genline made a huge contribution by digitizing the records and making them available online. But to the average genealogist, researching Swedish records, the net effect is that you pay to go to Salt Lake to view the records, or you pay to rent a copy of the microfilm and have it sent to a branch library, or you pay for access to Genline and get the information online.

None of these entities, the LDS Church, Genline, the Swedish National Archives or anyone else can be said to own the Swedish Church Records and if each of those entities had not contributed time and money to the preservation of the records there would be no justification for imposing any kind of charge for viewing the records. Unfortunately, many record repositories charge to view records. For example, try to get a copy of your own birth certificate. You may end up paying from $5 on up for a single copy. Does the state own your birth information? Do you own your own birth information? In this context the question of who owns what are somewhat meaningless. The state has the copy of your birth record and if they want to charge you to obtain a copy, there is no one, short of some legislative act, to stop them from doing so.

If you decide that you want to share your genealogical records online, say in one of the large online databases, like's Family Trees or, who owns the file once it is loaded into the online database? Do you determine when and if the file is made available to your relatives or even to yourself. What if you use a fee based genealogy company like MyHeritage and you stop paying the fee. What will happen to "your" genealogy? Have you ever rented a storage unit? Have you ever failed to make the monthly payment? Do you know what happens to your stuff if you fail to pay? What if you put your life's work of genealogy into an online service and then you die? Who owns the file? What if your heirs don't know enough about your affairs to pay the monthly or annual fee? What will happen to your file? What if the file is on a free database? What happens to your file if the company goes out of business?

Here is an interesting statement from about the ownership of their Family Tree service:
Portions of the Service will contain user provided content, to which you may contribute appropriate content. For this content, Ancestry is a distributor only. By submitting content to Ancestry, you grant Ancestry, the corporate host of the Service, a license to the content to use, host, distribute that Content and allow hosting and distribution of that Content, to the extent and in that form or context we deem appropriate. Should you contribute content to the site, you understand that it will be seen and used by others under the license described herein. You should submit only content which belongs to you and will not violate the property or other rights of other people or organizations. Ancestry is sensitive to the copyright of others. For more concerning copyright issues, view our corporate policy. We will not edit or monitor user provided content, with the exception that, to promote privacy, an automated filtering tool will be used to suppress, and omit from display, information submitted to the tree areas of the site which appears to pertain to a living person. We also reserves the right to remove any user provided content that comes to our attention and that we believe, in our sole discretion, is illegal, obscene, indecent, defamatory, incites racial or ethnic hatred or violates the rights of others, or is in any other way objectionable.[emphasis added]
  Same question, same answer, do you own your genealogical information?

I would submit that no one owns information. I do not own my own birth information, neither do I own the information about any other of my relatives. A fact, a piece of information, cannot be bought or sold. What can be bought and sold is the service of providing the information. If you have a legal question and you come to me as an attorney, I do not own the answer, but if you want the answer that I already know, you can either go to law school and figure out yourself, or you can pay me to tell you the answer. The situation is the same with genealogy. If I have you grandfather's birth date and you would like to know that information, you can either try to figure out where I got the information and find it yourself, or you can pay me a fee to give you the information I have already found.  Is the convenience of having the information quickly and in a usable format worth anything? Apparently so, since millions of people pay online services just for that reason. The online service may have the only available copy of certain types of information, such as's scans of the U.S. National Archives. I could pay my way to Washington D.C. and go through the hassle of doing research directly in the Archives, or I can pay a much smaller fee for someone else to provide the record to be directly online.

I guess I will keep going on this topic for a while, I am still not quite to the finish.

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