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

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Genealogy: Ethics, Ownership, Work Product, Plagiarism, and Privacy, Part One


Over the past almost 40 years of doing genealogical research and interacting with the genealogical community, I have encountered the same issues over and over again. These issues are summarized by concerns involving ethics, ownership, work product, plagiarism, and privacy. Genealogists are generally the most pleasant, cooperative, and kind people I know. The exceptions always seem to revolve around these five topics. Of course, there are other issues such as the digital divide and basic competence but I keep coming back to the BIG FIVE. 

This post is intended to explore all five of these issues. Over the course of this series, I hope to address some of the day-to-day considerations involving genealogists and the four interrelated topics. 

I will start with a short overview of each topic. 


Ethics are moral principles the govern a person's behavior or the conducting of an activity. Ethical behavior involves establishing concepts of what is right and what is wrong. Over time, as people become involved in genealogical research, they usually become aware of the existence of a greater genealogical community made up of people with similar interests in researching their ancestors and other family members. However, genealogical research attracts people from all types of ethical backgrounds. But as people recognize and begin to work in the genealogical community they usually get a feel for what is ethically acceptable and what is not. Notwithstanding the existence of a commonly observed ethical system, there are always those people who disregard ethical norms and act in ways that are destructive and harmful. 

The basis of many ethical systems is the concept of doing to others as you would have others do to you. This may seem like a reasonable and simple concept but it is the cause of endless discussion and in some cases, dispute. Those genealogists who follow the path of monetizing their activities sometimes become involved with professional genealogical organizations that have codified their acceptable ethical practices. For example, see the Association of Professional Genealogists Code of Ethics and Professional Practices. All genealogists would do well to review and seriously consider this particular code and other such codes from other professional organizations to see concrete examples of the type of conduct that should apply to all genealogical activities. But this is only the beginning of what needs to be considered. 

Let me give an introductory example of what I and many other genealogists would consider unethical behavior. 

One of the places where we have the opportunity to interact with the greater genealogical community is online using the collaborative, shared, and universal Family Tree. Some of those who participate in this interesting experiment in constructing a universal family tree, seem to be unaware of the huge number of other people who are involved. The activities of these people, who are seemingly unaware that they have entered into a huge, international, genealogical community, almost immediately become destructive and blatantly inconsistent with the assumed ethical standards of the greater community. This is not to say that these people are intentionally violating ethical restraints but even if they are acting ignorantly or negligently, the effect of their behavior is the same. At a fundamental level, they fail to recognize that anything they do in this community is open to immediate view and consideration by every other participant in the community. In this Family Tree community, there are no claims to ownership, claims to work product, claims to plagiarism, or even claims to privacy. If you disagree with this reality, then you should not be involved in the Family Tree. If you think my statement is extreme and unrealistic, I suggest you read the entire FamilySearch Terms of Use (Updated 2019-12-10)  linked from the startup page of the website. 

More about ethics and genealogy in future posts in this series.


The interaction between genealogy and the ownership issue can be summarized in one simple statement: you do not own your ancestors or relatives. If you do research about a family member and find some information about an event in that person's life, that is historical information. No one "owns" history. More about this as I continue to write. 

Work Product

The concept of work product is codified in the legal community based on another concept of attorney-client privilege. The attorney-client privilege refers to a legal privilege that works to keep confidential communications between an attorney and his or her client secret. Because there is an attorney-client privilege, the notes, and documents created by an attorney in the course of representing a client referred to as the attorney's "work product" are also covered by the privilege and usually cannot be discovered or used by an opposing party. Many people have focused on the words "work product" to extend a claim of ownership to their own research. If you don't own your relatives or ancestors, you certainly do not own information about these people. Genealogists have developed a multitude of excuses for claiming ownership and for preventing others in the community from benefitting and duplicating their research but all of the excuses boil down to the fact that you can own history or relatives. 


You can probably see where I am going with ownership and may already guess what I will say about plagiarism. Yes, plagiarism is just another excuse for a claim of ownership. However, the concept is more complicated and directly related to copyright protection. You can own a copyright, however, plagiarism is not necessarily a copyright issue. Issues of plagiarism most commonly arise in the academic community where professors and other professionals advance in their standing in the community by publishing papers on various subjects. Having unique or original ideas can result in fame and fortune. When someone steals an idea and claims it as his or her own, that is considered plagiarism. This spills over into the genealogical community among those genealogists who are publishing papers either for profit or prestige. Again, this is basically an ownership interest. 


Privacy claims are another smokescreen for ownership. Dead people do not have any claims to privacy. Information about dead people cannot be private. This is another topic that I will reserve for further discussion. 

Why aren't I also writing about copyright? I have written a lot about it in the past and will probably mention it in conjunction with everything else I am writing about in this series. Copyright is part of what is now known as intellectual property law. What is and what is not copyright protected is the subject of statutes and case law. It is not something you can claim without knowing exactly what is and what is not covered by copyright. Yes, you can own a copyright, but you can't copyright ideas and facts. To say that again, facts are considered to be in the public domain. They are not protected under copyright law. Copyright protection does not extend to news events or the facts or ideas which are the subject of news reports or your genealogical research. 

Stay tuned for more.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, my experience has not been of a pleasant, cooperative and kind group of people. The first time I ventured onto a forum, to ask about why so many family trees seemed to indicate multiple marriages dates of a single couple, there were 9 responses saying most people doing genealogies were stupid, and one saying I was stupid for not figuring that out. There was also the rant IN ALL CAPS about two men and their birth order. I've also seen numerous vituperative attacks on others for not complying with one aspect of another's interpretation. For me, it is not worth asking for help on genealogy sites.
    My main goal is to find the origin one of my great-great grandfathers, and maybe pick up interesting facts about some other ancestors, not live my entire life absorbed in minutiae, and certainly not engage in arguments with those who do.