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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Who owns the genealogy?

During the past few posts, I have been examining who owns the genealogy companies. What I find is a mixture of huge multinational corporations and family owned businesses. I did have an ulterior motive in examining the ownership however, I had several larger issues to discuss and needed to know a little background before I jumped into the controversial arena. When you realize the diversity of the ownership of the larger genealogy companies, you can imagine extending the diversity to the hundreds of smaller business organizations in today's genealogy marketplace.

The first question is this: Who owns the genealogy? If I do some research and identify my grandparents, do I own that information? I mean, not in the copyright sense, but in the real down-to-earth personal control type ownership. If you have ever thought about the subject of ownership, you probably realize that the whole concept is defined by the society you live in. The whole concept of private ownership is societal based. Now, let's think about owning genealogy. Do I own my research? What rights do I have as a result of having done the research? Again, I am not talking about the statutorily created concept of "copyright" but the idea of ownership. In my experience, most people would claim ownership of anything they felt they had either personally created or obtained through purchase or as a gift. In contrast, what if you were hired to do the research? Would you feel the same sense of ownership, or would you acknowledge that the person that hired you owned the research?

This idea of ownership is at the core of many of today's genealogy issues. Who owns and idea or information? I commonly hear the mantra that no one owns an idea. But, in the U.S. we have an elaborate system of copyright/trademark/patents to the contrary. I may not own the information about my Grandfather's life, but if I put it into a book, the book is automatically copyrighted under the current U.S. law. Copyright law gives me a whole bundle of rights to my work. But let's go back to the core. Can anyone really own an idea? Not under any present law in the U.S. What about information in the sense of facts and figures? Once again, under our laws, no one really owns information. Then what am I talking about? I am talking about a real phenomena, ownership of work product. I have found again and again, that people believe they own their genealogy.

Now let's scale this up a bit. What if my great Aunt does a lot of genealogical research and manages to identify six generations on my father's line. Does she own the research? What if she gives me a copy of the file? Do I now own that research or does she retain some kind of ownership? What if I don't believe anything she gave me and go out and do the same research over again? Do I now own the research assuming that my conclusions are exactly the same as my Aunt's? What if my conclusions are different? What if one of my cousins goes out and does the same research over? Does he now own the research? At this point, you can probably see that the idea of ownership of information is fundamentally different than the concept of ownership of either real or personal property. If I own a car, for example, even if it is a common make or model, I still have a unique item which can be identified. If someone else goes out and purchases exactly the same make and model of car that I own, I still have my own car and it is completely distinct from that of someone else. No one would argue that by purchasing a similar car that anyone would somehow obtain an ownership interest in my car. But, in the world of genealogy (and other information based disciplines) I venture to say that most practitioners would believe they had an ownership interest in the information in their own file, especially if they spent the time to do the research.

The example of the car ownership points out that the idea of ownership of information or ideas is an illusion. Physical objects (at least in the common experience sense) can only be in one place at one time. But the same exact information can be in multiple locations at the same time. Whether my relatives share their information with me or not, if I do the research, theoretically, I can reproduce anything they have.

Here is another issue with the concept of the ownership of information. What happens to our "ownership" when we die? It is a sad fact that every day, every hour, every minute we are losing valuable genealogical information as people die all over the world. When you last living sibling of your father or mother dies, that may be the last time anyone could have identified all of the people in those old photographs. So, in addition to the challenge of the illusion of ownership, information and ideas are ephemeral. Have you ever thought about what will happen to all of your genealogical research, papers, books, records, files etc. when you die? Who will own the information when you die?

It looks like I am going to have to break this down into smaller units. So I guess the next post will continue the discussion.

Here is the question for the next post; Who owns the genealogy I post online in a database?

1 comment:

  1. I think this is an important topic. In the scheme of multilevel marketing all the downline 1st cousins have claim on the information, family pictures, stories of their in-common grandparents, and it only gets more complicated as the generations grow. Wouldn't it be nice if we all would just get along and share? In this era of family websites collaborating and making research available to download could be a good thing. It's when we operate in the dark from eachother that we all miss out. I am looking forward to your next post. Damaris Fish, also on Blogger