Sharing Your Genealogy Online

by JL Beeken on 2-14-2008

I received the following letter about sharing your genealogy online, which I reprint here.  It opens up the whole can of worms that’s been addressed in various forums before.  If anyone else has opinions please send them in.

Hello,

I was just wondering if you have ever discussed how to secure up your genealogical contributions to a website that you host online for all cousins of a particular family?

Like say I was wanting to start a Maple Family Society website. How would I go about securing everything so that someone wouldn’t hijack major portions of my sites content that would become the bulk of another website that would be competing with my site.

This just happened in another family heritage project that I am involved in, where two volunteers became disgruntled with the leader of the project and left. Within a few days, they put up another website that is basically a carbon copy of the project’s website that they left. So I guess they are going to force both sites members to contribute their research to both sites, use both sites etc to just get accurate info on the family. Both sites are going to have doubly vet contributions, so work will be duplicated.

These two volunteers have made themselves liable for fraud… because they misrepresented that they own the work that they took with them. And they tried to convince members of our group that the group as a whole would no longer be supporting the website that has been in existence since 1998.

So is there any way that you can put up a family society website where you can better secure your work so that is not stolen? Yeah I know, don’t put your work online.

Thanks,
Geoff

It sounds like a nasty parting of the ways. People disgruntled with leadership, wanting to be leaders themselves, is a given in every facet of life.

If you’re counting on other people to be consistently reasonable and rational, reality will probably stomp you to death in the end.

The short answer is that I have no answer but I’ll tell you some of what I think anyway. I think the underlying issue here is whether you want to share your genealogy or not. The general opinion on this runs the gamut. Some people think it should be wide-open. Some people prefer to keep everything they know to themselves, sharing only with a few close family members. Some people are almost at war with their opposing opinions on this. I don’t think it matters. You just feel how you feel and take your stand where you do.

The problem with the Internet is the same as its great blessing. Whatever you say out here travels the world. And, in some sense, belongs to the whole world. Yes, there are copyright laws, but before you think the law is going to save you from yourself, think about how much effort you would want to put into suing someone over copyright infringement. Is that really how you want to spend your time?

Genealogical ‘facts’ cannot be copyrighted anyway. Even if you are the person who has spent the most time compiling the facts, that doesn’t mean you own them. Your unique presentation of the facts is yours but that may not solve the underlying issue you refer to above. You may own the original of a document or photograph but, as soon as you share it with someone else, they own their copy. Your relatives may be claiming to ‘own’ the family history, but do they really?

If you’re part of a group that contributes to a closed family website, perhaps you could draw up a contract that has to be signed on entry. With Terms & Conditions for exiting. But then there’s still the issue of enforcement.

I had an idea awhile ago of sharing more of my family history in a password-protected area of my website, accessible only by certain family members. I came across a program that I planned to look into called Password Protect. I started to make up a list in my mind of who I would give the password to. Maybe 10 people to start.

Here’s the problem: I have no control over who else those 10 people or even 2 people would give the password to. So, it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing is public. It would just take a little longer. I figure it’s the same issue with any of the family tree sites where you can choose to keep it within a chosen group of people. How does one go about controlling a ‘chosen group’ of people?I think what you’re asking is: How can I give something and still maintain control over it? How can I give it and still own it? I could be wrong but I think the answer is you can’t.

And this, of course, extends to any presentation of family history, not just what you post online. Last year I finished a mammoth Passage Express project, using everything I had; all the charts, all the photographs, all the documents. Then I wrote an introduction asking that the people who received this not de-compile, recompile or post it elsewhere. Well, yah, I could ask. It sounded pathetic. It would only be a matter of time before one of my tech-savvy nieces, nephews or 2nd cousins had their hands on a copy and decided it would make a good website.

So in the end I made only one copy and sent it to my #1 fellow-researcher who I know will not be making a website out of it. She has contributed a great deal to our shared family history and is not comfortable with having it all put online so it gives me an easy out on this subject.

Every time I start another sharing project, the latest being my personal version of JLiki, I’m asking myself the same question – which family members will I be sending this to? Or do I just keep it to myself in the meantime and let my inheritors decide what to do with it? It is, after all, my hobby not theirs.

Since starting my website I’ve put into the ‘Ancestors & Cousins’ section only what I feel truly willing to share with the whole world. Because that’s what the Internet is – the whole world. Even one person offline could end up being the whole world. I think that’s where you have to draw the line. When you’re thinking of putting something online, or giving anything in any other way, are you willing to follow your highest sense of good judgment, truly give it and then let go? Because I don’t know of a way to control it after that.

I put online some descendant charts, some obits, some photographs and some stories. People come, they take, they go. That’s fine. I’ll usually send out a Descendants Book report with photos on a particular line to a person who has made a serious contribution to it. On the other hand, I will never be posting a copy of my father’s memorial service. Years later, it still makes me cry, it’s no-one’s business, it’s mine, mine, mine. But someone else might post it.

Just as an example: One of my g-g-g-grandfathers has 371 descendants, plus all the others I don’t know about yet. That’s a lot of people sharing the same history. If we could get over the idea of ‘ownership’ and ‘competition’ that would be dropping a great burden. We’d also have to get over the idea of “I put 10,000 hours into this so it’s mine.” It really challenges our basic life-training.

Printing a book (giving credit to all contributors, of course) would be the closest I can think of to owning and controlling a family history. But other people could still take the contents, put it online and neglect to give you credit.

Maybe we need to get back to the philosophy of genealogy. Why do we do what we do? I started out wanting only one answer. I wanted to know where my grandmother was buried. It took me 3 years to find out. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked by the lives of my fascinating family. Between this and that I’ve met a lot of people and I’ve learned a lot of things. I get up every morning wondering what today will bring. I enjoy the questions and the answers and the creativity of putting it all together. It’s taken on a life of its own.

Why do you do what you do? And what are you doing with it?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Don 2-14-2008 at 2:31 PM

Hi,

I guess I can be considered a stingy old man, (some people do consider me that), because I refuse to post any of my family history on the web.

This in particular is because many years ago when I began this family history project as an activity in my retirement, I happened to find a person with the name of my family. I wrote him and then ultimately shared some new found material I received and told him that it had not been verified as yet that he needed to prove it as I planned to do. Well,,,, needless to say very soon I found it all on his website, “without” any changes having been made or verified. I also gave him some of my researched data, (with a special notation in part of it just incase for some strange reason at the time, maybe a gut feeling), and found that to an exact copy on his website. He came back to me and wanted more, from the spot I stopped down to myself, I wrote him back and said no.

Now when I check his website I find this stuff there, still with the errors that I myself found and proved to be wrong by the initial researcher I got it from and he is out there still grabbing and gleaning and posting of others. I feel he does no researching himself, just grabs from others and posts.

And to top this off I find others using his data and posting it to their sites with the very same errors!

Did he post credit or mention of where he received it from? Nope! Not that I really want it, but I sure don’t like the feeling he presents of having researched it himself totally.

So, a few years later I was put in contact with a cousin in Canada by a friend that had been assisting me in a state my family lineage came from. He and I have a mutual agreement that we will never post our research efforts that we have made together on the web just for this reason. So only two of us researching this family name together, but we have a trust with each other knowing the feeling is mutual.

I do this as a family historian for the sake of passing to my children if and when they become interested in genealogy. They have books I have created and a CD using Passage Express and I’m hoping that some day they will acquire the interest and pick up where I leave off when I am gone.

You said your interest began by wanting to know where a grandmother was buried, my interest and start, came about from reading a paper in which my ggg-grandfather mentioned the money denomination Pence and Shillings. As I dug deeper I became hooked and now it is my job in retirement besides volunteering to help others doing the same.

Like you say, there are so many theories about should I share, should I be greedy and keep, what to do. But I have chosen to go this route and feel fully comfortable with my decision to this point, and I have found many more locally of the same feelings.

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RS 2-21-2008 at 12:33 PM

Very nice. I had a similar problem. I had sent to a person a gedcom, with the warning that my stuff was unproved. The stuff he sent to me I disproved a few months later. He posted my stuff on Rootsweb, then I think he died. The only part I was concerned with was his ‘wrong’ connection to my family. The rest of it might be right? He seems to have used this wrong data to get into an ‘ancestor society’. He may have qualified not using the errors I proved. I did not pursue ‘turning him in’.

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