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

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Trolls and Other Internet Bullies

The term "troll" has taken on a new meaning in the context of the online world. Of course the original meaning was a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance. The identity of trolls began to evolve with books such as Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967.) with its orcs and such. But then the term began to be applied to a person who posted deliberate provocative messages to an online forum in order to cause disruption and argument.

Lately, the term has come to be applied to other types of online activities, particularly making claims based on threats of legal action. One such area that will undoubtedly impact the online genealogical community is the area of copyright trolls. According to Wikipedia, here is the definition:
Copyright troll is a pejorative term for a party that enforces copyrights it owns for purposes of making money through litigation, in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, generally without producing or licensing the works it owns for paid distribution. Critics object to the activity because they believe it does not encourage the production of creative works, but instead makes money through the inequities and unintended consequences of high statutory damages provisions in copyright laws intended to encourage creation of such works.
 This can become a serious business. In some cases, cited in the Wikipedia article, entities put up images for the express purpose of laying the basis for a legal claim of copyright against Google and others.

This activity comes extremely close to entities, including museums and libraries, that lay copyright claim to documents in their possession that are clearly not covered by copyright because they have long since passed into the public domain. They sometimes use arguments such as licensing and other contract theories to assert their "ownership" of the documents. This issue continues to bother me since the time I found a library that had two albums of my Great-grandmother's photographs and refused me access to the documents on the grounds of copyright violation when I owned and had in my possession my Grandmother's copyright. By this I mean the actual document. The library also raised the issue of a possible violation of the privacy of the people in the photographs when such a claim was entirely personal with the individuals depicted and could not be asserted by a library.

This whole issue is like a cloud hanging over the genealogical community. I regularly get questions about whether or not a certain document can be copied or used online from a researcher who is concerned about copyright violation. Whenever I write about this topic, I always get comments back from readers who are defending their own "copyright claims" and utterly outraged that I would question their right to do so.

Here is my position. Do not threaten litigation in the United States unless you can be reasonably sure of the following:

  1. You have a valid, enforceable copyright claim.
  2. You have complied with the provisions of Title 17, Section 411 and 412 of the United States Code as applicable and registered your copyright. 
  3. You have the financial means to pursue a claim in the Federal District Court.
A copyright claim is not just a convenient hammer to use for your own purposes. If you want to play in the copyright arena, you most certainly need to know the rules of the game. I am not encouraging copyright infringement. I am merely pointing out that before you get all huffy about your copyright claims, you ought to take the time to educate yourself as to what is really involved in making such a claim. 


  1. I tried to comment on the Rejoice and Be Exceedingly Glad article, "Why you can edit the information in FamilySearch Family Tree." There is not an option for anonymous comments. My comment is: How would James Tanner like it if every time he created a blog, someone else deleted, added, and changed James Tanner's wording. James Tanner would spend all day cleaning up the garbage and would not get anything done. I rest my case.

    1. Well, your comment is interesting but my blog is copyrighted and family trees are not, so the hypothetical fails. But the question is very interesting and will probably be the subject of another blog post.

  2. Anonymous, are you claiming that "every time" you put something on FamilySearch Family Tree, someone comes along and corrupts it?

    A few questions for you.

    How accurate and complete is your own work? Is it well-researched and thoroughly sourced? How accurately and completely are you demonstrating the reliability of your work on Family Tree? How often are people making changes?

    Are you adding sources to Family Tree? Do you understand the principles of genealogical proof?

    Some of the people I work with in the local FamilySearch center get very angry about changes to their lines, but when I sit down to work with them, I notice that they don't understand some of the basic functions of Family Tree and the use of sources and standards of genealogical proof, so we're working on increasing their skill level.

    In the cases I've seen, anger does not equal competence. In other words, in order to make some of the genealogical claims they've made in the past, they're now having to demonstrate a higher standard of proof than they've needed to previously.

    It's a steep learning curve, and it is creating a lot of anxiety, but like I said, we're working together to increase the understanding of how the system works including what a unified tree is (its strengths and weaknesses and how to deal with problems that arise), and what a reliable and well-sourced entry looks like.

    And once the steep learning curve is over, I am hoping that the aggravation that these users feel for the system itself -- anger like you're expressing here -- will dissipate and that they will have a much more positive experience overall.

    1. Well said and good points. I will include these ideas in a post on the Rejoice and be exceeding glad... blog.