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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Finders Keepers?

Did the pot hunters that raided the ancient abandoned cities of the native population of America own the things they acquired? Does this question have anything to do with genealogical research? Do you automatically "own" the information and documents you discover as a genealogical researcher (or genealogical pot hunter)?

One of the largest such archeologically valuable abandoned townsites in Arizona lies approximately at the corner of Stapely and McKellips and is buried under shopping centers and office buildings and some current-day homes. Now, did those "pot hunters" who took the artifacts and pottery from that historical homesite "own" the things they spent time in the hot sun digging out of the ground?

Why would you think that your genealogical research efforts digging into old records would produce something you "owned?"

Ownership is a complex cultural phenomenon. The fact that our society has chosen to "protect" the interests of some types of work product through copyright does not confer on everyone the right of ownership to information that is publically available. Why do genealogists who have searched historical records somehow believe that the search process conveys ownership? Here is a recent redacted comment that illustrates the issue.
I have always said I do not own my ancestors, I own my research time, effort and findings should I, myself, do the finding. I do not own public, government, church, etc documents I find. That said, when I have done the research and written it up with the inclusion of personal photos, documentations and my research, then it is my work and should be protected from at least being reprinted or sold without my permission. Which is why I do not put it out on any public or paid for site. I share with family and other researchers when asked, but I ask that they not publicly share what I have done but use what I have for their own research plan.
Has anyone every monetarily benefitted from their "genealogical research?" Laying that issue aside for a moment, if this person has a work product that is his or her own creation, then the issue of reprinting and selling is covered by our very expansive and inclusive copyright laws. Not only should the work be protected, it is protected. But the commentator does not appear to have any interest in publishing the work and therefore, all of it is likely to be lost as soon as this person dies.

The early "pioneers" in the Salt River Valley of Arizona were struggling to survive. They had only a passing interest in the ruins of an advanced civilization that lay all around them baking under the hot sun of the desert. When they found pottery or other artifacts, they often displayed those items on fireplace mantels and shelves. They certainly claimed ownership of those artifacts. Today, removing such an artifact from its surroundings is a Federal crime. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act into law. See "American Antiquities Act of 1906." What the "pot hunters" did is now called looting and vandalism and is a Federal Crime.

Today, we have genealogical pot hunters who believe that what they find in the public domain somehow becomes their property and that anyone's efforts to copy what they find is stealing. Some years ago, my father helped pay for the printing of a history of the John Tanner family. Here is the book:

Tanner, George S. John Tanner and His Family: A History-Biography of John Tanner of Lake George, New York, Born August 15, 1778, Hopkinton, Rhode Island, Died April 13, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Utah. Salt Lake City: John Tanner Family Association., 1974.

I am sure that the cost of printing the books was considerable. However, I still have two boxes of the books in my basement even despite the fact that John Tanner has tens of thousands of descendants. Personal collections of genealogy only have any real value when shared as widely as possible. Limiting who and which of your relatives have the "privilege" of looking at your research guarantees that it will be lost. All of the same information that is in the printed books in my basement is now freely available online on and other websites. Do I now own the books? What difference does that make when all of the information in these books is freely available? Isn't that really the fundamental reason for doing genealogy; so your family will benefit and learn from their ancestors? If you do not share without someone asking, how will they know to ask?

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