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

Monday, February 13, 2012

Posting records online -- beyond copyright

Copyright law is not the only limitation in publishing documents online, but it is a major consideration. In addition to copyright restrictions, records may be considered privately owned by both governments and other entities and therefore subject to access restrictions. One category of restricted documents are those which are considered private, secret or confidential. This designation can be imposed by private as well as public authorities. Disclosing private, secret or confidential information has much more serious consequences than violating a copyright. Violating these restrictions in some countries could get you executed.

Violating someone's privacy may not be as serious but it could conceivably be a personal disaster.

Genealogists run more of risk of violating someone's perceived right of privacy than they do of being executed for revealing state secrets in the U.S. but that may not be so true in other countries of the world. Privacy laws are vague in theory at best and really vague in practice. Some of the concerns addressed by the so-called privacy laws include:
  • The right to communicate without being overheard or monitored
  • The right to behave differently when alone than in a group
  • The right to be left alone by governments and other entities
Reporting information from any of these categories in a publication, genealogical or otherwise, can raise privacy issues. What issues you may ask? What about divorces, illegitimacy, criminal acts and much more. It is not that unusual for genealogists to have to make value judgements as to whether or not to post "sensitive" but true information online. I happen to be in the "history is history" camp and I feel that the fact that an ancestor did things that are socially unacceptable today or even at the time is no reason to censure the record. But the rules change dramatically when the people involved are still alive. As my grandmother would have said, there is no reason to hang your dirty laundry out there for the world to see. Most genealogy programs have privacy settings that will prevent sensitive information from being accidentally published.

Now we have state or company secrets and privacy concerns, are there any other limitations besides copyright we need to be aware of? As a matter of fact, yes. There is plagiarism or claiming someone else's work as your own. Facts cannot be copyrighted, but work product should always be attributed. If you copy someone's work, have the common cutesy to give them credit where credit is due, even if there is no copyright claim to the work. Of course, this issue grades into the bugaboo of ownership of genealogical information. No one owns facts. But if someone's research effort has produced a competent set of facts, give credit for the work and effort.

In any of these areas moderation is advised. Do the work yourself and don't be too quick to worry about people stealing your work. But stay far away from the other non-copyright concerns.


  1. I'm currently dealing with a "sensitive" subject in my research at the moment.

    It all happened before 1900 and involved bigamy resulting in a trial and reported in a fair number of papers.

    I'm of the opinion that there would be no (or very few) privacy concerns attached to this given that it happened so long ago and was reported.

    Would I be right in thinking this?

    1. It depends entirely as to who is still alive. Before 1900 it is very unlikely that anyone directly involved would still be alive. The dead have no privacy.

    2. I'm fairly certain that all directly concerned are now deceased and the only people it could upset or offend would be grandchildren/great grandchildren etc.

      There are family stories surrounding it which appear to have been exaggerated so I would imagine that everyone would be aware that there is a skeleton in the closet..

      I decided to blog about it in the end, so now just awaiting any backlash (if there is to be any!)