O is for Ownership – do you own your family tree?

Recently Dick Eastman commented on ownership of family trees, berating those who complain if their family information is ‘stolen’. Dick wrote, “Many genealogists think the information they collect becomes private for some reason and that no one else has a right to view the info. They collect information about names, dates, and places throughout history and then seem to believe that they “own” the information, even though they obtained all that from publicly-available sources. I believe they are wrong, both for legal and for practical reasons.”

In my opinion, there is a distinction here between genealogy and family history. Genealogical facts are primarily in the public domain and do not ‘belong’ to anyone. The synthesis of that information in order to produce a true family history, complete with national and local context, memories and social historical comment is very different. This is your personal family story.

I don’t consider that I ‘own’ my ancestry. I have shared genealogical and family historical information for nearly four decades. I do so by email but not online because I want a genuine two way dialogue with people who may have information to offer in exchange. I also want to be able to explain exactly how I reached my conclusions. I accept that people with whom I have shared family trees may pass them on and publish them online. They may be ‘stealing’ my interpretation of the data but others could come to the same conclusions give the same facts. I am however far less accepting of those who take lengthy portions of text that I have written and incorporate them in their websites or other ‘publications’, frequently without consultation or acknowledgement. I believe that the in-depth research and the synthesis of material from many sources that I have done in order to create my family history is indeed my own.

My sources never include ‘I got this from an online family tree’. That is not and never should be, a source. Work that others have done may be a guide but it is not family history (yours or anyone else’s) unless it has been verified in original sources. As I commented under ‘I’, the internet has given us ease of access to records in an undreamed of way. Equally, it has encouraged ‘short-cut’ genealogy, where the family trees of others, however poorly researched, are imported into the family tree of those name hunters eager for the largest family tree; a tree that will be in severe need of pruning.

When people learn that you are researching your family tree they inevitably ask you, ‘How far back have you got?’ The sooner we promote the alternative, ‘How much do you know?’ outlook the better. A family tree with names but no places, occupations and sometimes even lacking in dates, is not a family history, it is a diagram. It is not a substitute for a personally researched ancestral story. You may not own the genealogical data but you can own the fully fashioned family story.


4 comments on “O is for Ownership – do you own your family tree?

  1. ruthrawls says:

    Another issue that people use in this copy-and-paste world is to use a photo, that is clearly mine and thus I have copyright, and use it in their tree as their own, without sourcing back to me. I have now watermarked many of my photos, which is no guarantee that a borrower can’t crop out the watermark.

  2. Birgit says:

    I never even thought that people would be upset if you find their family history-dates etc.. and you use it for your own because that is public record. It could be that they feel they did all the work and should feel compensated when it is public and therefore can be used. To take what people have written and call it your own is another story-that’s plagorism (how do you spell that word:) no time to look it up). I would never take someone’s words and call it my own. I would always ask first and give credit where credit is due. I would even do that with basic info I find that is at everyone’s finger tips. You give food for thought

  3. Glenda Cates says:

    What a great post and not something I would have thought of but I should trace our family history while my dad is still here and could help.

  4. I think that my ancestry owns me, after all, i’m just a product of it.

    Therefore, I feel there’s nothing more that I can do, than to document what I can, preserve what I find out, and share it for others.

    I’m completely with you on the ‘short-cut genealogy’. Whilst I’ve no qualms about the information i’ve researched being taken and used by others (it’s in the public archives after all), it’s the twisting of it with blatant errors that riles me eg. saying that Cambridge, Cambridgeshire is in London which in turn is in Ohio, USA – and yes, i’ve seen that rather interesting interpretation of geography!

    Family history is so much more than dates and names, and so the ‘how far have you got?’ question also annoys me.

    It’s about the stories, the impact, the photographs, the tough decisions they had to make against all odds – the real character of our ancestors.

    Great article.

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