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On copyright and intellectual property

As any writer will tell you, copyright is necessary if authors and musicians and others like them are going to eat. My novels are copyrighted, and my publishers would take anybody to court who impinged on those copyrights, and rightly so.

Genealogy is a cloudier research area. I note that many people who put genealogical data on websites sprinkle copyright warnings liberally throughout, and I find it hard to understand what is meant by that, or what they hope to accomplish. If someone spends years writing a book on Family X and publishes it, then yes. Copyright, of course. By all means. But even in this case, the author should be prepared to be quoted (and cited, of course). Fair Use is a legal concept and an important one.

But there is a spirit of tight-fistedness about some genealogical work that surprises and disconcerts me. We are not talking about people who do this for a living, but those who pursue it out of love of history and family. Do people yell ‘copyright!’ because they want credit for original work they’ve done? In genealogy I would guess that truly original work is rare, but sure, credit should be given where it’s due. But why get all bellicose and confrontational about it?

Commercial websites like Ancestry.com spend a lot of money maintaining databases and creating software that allows easy access and organization, and they charge for the use of their software. Fair enough. At the same time, Ancestry.com has this odd and (to me) irritating policy of putting themselves down as “author” of the data. Ancestry may be the repository (the place where the data is kept and from which it is accessed by many), but consider these examples:

Who is the author of the Social Security Death Index?

The author of the London (England) index of baptisms, marriages and deaths?

For some reason Ancestry.com feels entitled  to claim  authorship (and thus, ownership) of data sources that it did not author. When I export citation data from Ancestry, I always correct the source information — taking out all references to them other than ‘repository.’

It is also ironic that in a field where amateurs can be so adamantly possessive about data ownership no one seems to have a problem with this practice. Anybody have any insight?

My approach to data is straight-forward and originates in academia, where authorship is taken very seriously. If by some fluke I am the first person to stumble across a piece of information about an ancestor, I am pleased, of course, but I try to keep it in perspective. Yes, I find it exciting to know for sure that a great aunt twice removed was married to a minor novelist, and yes, the engagement notice in the paper is really interesting for a lot of different reasons. But to claim that I somehow own that information is, to put it bluntly, absurd. If I want to keep it to myself with a horde of other little facts that (let’s be honest) are of little interest to the world at large, why then I’ll hide it away in my (imaginary) safe deposit box, with my (imaginary) Krugerands.

The whole point of genealogy, it seems to me, is to make connections. So instead of hiding away those six lines from a 130 year old newspaper, I put it up on the web. Maybe somebody else will come along with another piece of the puzzle and send it to me and then we’ll both know a whole lot more. Maybe somebody named Josephine will print it out and take it to Sunday dinner at Aunt Erma’s and claim that it’s her discovery, and wow, isn’t she clever. Should I get upset about that? Vow revenge? Hire a lawyer? Life is too short. I can’t work up any emotions for poor Josephine beyond amusement and a little sadness.

Would I prefer that Josephine give me credit rather than claiming my few original discoveries as her own? I admit I’m a little odd on this count (I write most of my fiction under a pen name, after all) but I don’t particularly care. Having said that, I am in a hurry to point out that I do care about this when it comes to fiction and academic writing. I also insist on giving credit to other researchers where it’s due.

And here’s the thing I care about most: I hate, absolutely hate the idea that anybody would take information they find here and pass it off as fact without making sure of the citations and sources. I don’t want to be responsible for the proliferation of any more bad genealogy. Dog knows there’s enough of it out there already. So I’m dead serious when I say: check the sources.