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

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'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'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.


  1. "because they didn't want some one to mess with 'their data.' "

    I have to say that I would initially understand this to be a concern that some person with a predilection for 80y old women having babies and fathers being their own sons, would come along and "update" the author's conclusions. This can be soul destroying and I can't blame anyone for not wanting to put themselves through it.

    In addition - what if the original happened to be the only copy of the research conclusions? You say, sensibly, "Of course, you can keep your own information on your own database using your own program" - this protects you. But I have to say that this approach is NOT being clearly promulgated by the various One-Tree sponsors. Many people will be thinking in terms of this being the only copy of their data.

  2. While I agree about the way it used to be, people then were courteous to their neighbors, but the reason the no trespassing signs go up today is the clods that refuse to close gates, knock holes in fences, and tear up vegetation, trees, or other property, and then do nothing about fixing or even offering to pay for the damages.

    1. Normally, I would agree with you. But in the area I am talking about there is no problem closing gates, there is no way to knock holes in fences since they are all barbed wire, and there is no significant vegetation or trees and there are almost no people.

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  4. I am perfectly happy to share the info, in fact I have met quite a few distant relatives (children of siblings thru my ancestor) who have been indeed fortunate to travel to the homeland and update the info and sharing it with me along the way and vice versa. Not sharing the info is selfish and indeed can be lost especially when there is no one in the immediate or somewhat extended family willing to continue the work you have started. The problem comes when those that have linked/combined records now think your relation is really their relation but in reality isn't a relation at all. One would hope that sourcing the info that corresponds with the individual will keep the changes at a minimum, and having the discussion button does help as this too can help rectify discrepancies. In a tree like mine though, that is currently kadywhompas from wrongly compiled records (not of my doing), it's easier to not work on it for the moment. I am more than happy to share my info with someone, in the end I am going to share it with the entire family and if there are a bunch of new folks to add in to the family tree, the more the merrier.

  5. 1) Most collaborative genealogy sites are setup so that another person can't mess with your data. People may be able to extend lines, offer corrections, etc., but not directly change other people's data. So this argument is moot.

    2) Presenting accurate and comprehensive data should be a reason that you DO post to a collaborative database. By combining our efforts and sources we can get further than we would by not collaborating. If a link has been debunked, that's great. Post details about why it's debunked, and then others will be more informed, rather than roaming free with their own ideas.

    I develop and manage a free collaborative site for just this reason at, trying to get our efforts out of the 20th century, and into the 21st.

  6. I don't mind sharing with others; my issue is that I don't want to share with corporations who then charge other people to see the work that I have done.