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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Yours, mine and ours: genealogy and ownership

It seems like I regularly run into a situation where a careful, perhaps even meticulous genealogist is expressing frustration with the status of the online family trees. They are mostly upset with either inaccurate (sloppy) entries in "their" portion of the family tree or arbitrary and unsupported changes. This seems particularly true with unified family trees (i.e. wiki-based) such as the Family Tree. These complaints most commonly come from people who exhibit two basic genealogical traits; a sense of ownership of the data they have collected and a sense of superiority that their research is absolutely "correct" and all the other data put online is suspect. I had that experience again today. When this happens, I have learned just to be pleasant and not say anything in response to the complaints about either issue.

But politeness does not keep me from writing about the situation. As I have said and written many times: you do not own your ancestors.

I can approach this from either a legal, a social or a cultural standpoint, or all three. Ownership entitlement is ingrained in most people in the United States by the time they finish kindergarten or even earlier in nursery school. Put a bunch of American two- or three-year-olds in a room with an assortment of toys and soon they will begin to claim ownership. In American history, church members in New England could donate money to the congregation and receive "ownership" of their particular pew. Beginning with the drafting of the United States Constitution, the idea of ownership of intellectual property was codified in the copyright laws. Ownership and entitlement are twin stalwarts of the American cultural scene.

Naturally, when an American genealogists spends his or her time accumulating documents and information about their ancestors, they fall prey to the cultural norm and begin to acquire a sense of ownership. The irony in this situation is that what they are accumulating is historical information that is by its very nature entire communal. Each succeeding generation of research has the potential to geometrically increase the number of equally valid claimants to ownership of that same information. The counter-argument becomes simply, the little red hen syndrome or "I did the work, I own the product."

But the bread baked by the little red hen was not a pedigree of her ancestral line, it was a physical product. For most people I talk to, the idea that by doing the research they have accumulated ownership rights to the data is as certain as a geometric theorem. They fail to realize that all the aurguments supporting such a claim as tantalogical. U.S. Copyright Law recognizes this very situation by excluding copyright claims to ideas, facts and concepts. Quoting from the U.S. Copyright Office website:
Copyright law does not protect ideas, methods, or systems. Copyright protection is therefore not available for ideas or procedures for doing, making, or building things; scientific or technical methods or discoveries; business operations or procedures; mathematical principles; formulas or algorithms; or any other concept, process, or method of operation.
Genealogists should not be in the business of creating or inventing their own pedigrees (although it has been done). Their work is not "original" in the copyright sense of an original creation. Protection does extend to any part of the work that can be considered to be "original" but even if copyright protection is claimed, the claim only applies to the original part of the work. If you would like to dispute this position, just think about what would happen if I did genealogical work on your ancestors and then claimed that I owned the data I had produced and tried to prevent you from discovering your own pedigree without paying me a royalty.

I am not saying that if I did do the research about your ancestors that I had to give you my work for free. What I am saying is that I have no legal method of preventing you from doing the same research and finding out the same information. More importantly, if you redo the work, or not, you can put whatever you want into your "own" pedigree even if we share the same ancestors. Just because I judge your work to be inferior to my own, does not give me possessory rights to the pedigree. If we are working on a unified, community based family tree such as the Family Tree, we each have equal rights to change, correct or modify the information. Just because you believe your information is more accurate than mine, does not give you any superior claim of ownership to the data.

Now, we have to take this whole situation a step further. If I elect to put whatever work I do online in a wiki-based program, then I give up even my claim to require you to do the acquisition work over again. By entering my information into a wiki, I relinquish all claims to ownership, whether I like it or not. Intent when entering the information does not change that reality.

You cannot have it both ways. Either you relinquish your rights or you lose the advantages of having your work shown in the program. Get used to the idea.

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