Monday, February 13, 2012

Intellectual property or public information?

The premier commercial genealogy site on the internet is  They have massive collections of information and new data is being added every day. More and more public records are becoming available online. makes it easy to share information among members who are researching the same family lines.  That last point is a problem for some traditional genealogists.

Before the internet, genealogists and family historians had to struggle for every crumb of information.  At the same time, they were a community that shared information on a quid pro quo basis.  More than that, many would gladly do local research for someone who couldn’t travel to their location.  Those who could afford it, traveled to their ancestors’ home towns to hunt for precious documents recording births, marriages, deaths, etc.  Many still do make a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City to visit the LDS Family History Library. (I wish I could spend a month there.)

Then a couple of things happened.  The TV series Roots started a boom in genealogy.  The availability of information on the internet grew exponentially.
Now there are thousands of us amateur family historians scouring the net for family data.

The traditional genealogists posted their family trees on but never expected that the newbie historians would not share their sense of propriety regarding data. In their naiveté they designated their online trees as “public”.  How distressed they are that the newer generations of researchers takes that “public” designation literally.  Now they’re upset.

Other researchers assume that any public family tree is available so that the information can be shared at will.  People who’ve spent years accumulating hard won information now find that anyone researching the same family can and will take advantage of the fact that it is now public data.  They may have researched their families, but they didn’t do due diligence on the ramifications of posting on the internet.

I empathize with the traditionalists.  I’m sad that they did not understand the consequence of their decision to make their work public information.  But we all live and learn.  It’s a new age and the rules have changed.

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