Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Friday, May 9, 2014

You Don't Own Your Ancestors Revisited

In response one of my last posts I got the following comment from my dear friend, Anonymous.
I tried to comment on the Rejoice and Be Exceedingly Glad article, "Why you can edit the information in FamilySearch Family Tree." There is not an option for anonymous comments. My comment is: How would James Tanner like it if every time he created a blog, someone else deleted, added, and changed James Tanner's wording. James Tanner would spend all day cleaning up the garbage and would not get anything done. I rest my case.
As the comment indicates, my post was entitled, "Why you can edit the information in FamilySearch Family Tree." I am really glad to get this comment because it basically proves my point. As I said, "The fact that anyone registered on can edit any entry for any individual on the Family Tree program is a huge issue for some people." Apparently, it is a huge issue for Anonymous.

It is also evident that the hypothetical posed by Anonymous is seriously flawed. I do own my blog content. In fact, it is copyright protected. In addition, there is no way for anyone to edit the content of one of my blog posts without my permission. If you or anyone else were to copy the blog post, it would be a violation of my copyright.

On the other hand, the data in an online family tree is not copyrighted. Facts cannot be copyrighted. In addition, the Terms of Use of the website confer an absolute license on FamilySearch to do pretty much as they like with the content put on their website by users. If someone adds copyrighted material to an online family tree then only that portion of the family tree data containing the copyrighted material is subject to copyright. But by putting your own "copyrighted" work into a public forum, you are making the job of enforcing your copyright claim much more difficult.

For example, imagine that you wrote a story and published that story in a book. Enforcing a copyright claim involves becoming aware if someone copies your book without your permission. But it also involves expending the time, money and effort it would take to enforce the copyright in a Federal District Court. Now, let's add some levels of difficulty to this hypothetical. Imagine further that your book is a mixture of your own work and facts and figures from the public domain. Since only those portions of your work that are original are protected by copyright, you will have to prove that those sections of your book are your own work and at the same time are original. Now, let's add another factor. You publish your work as a flyer and you scatter the flyer to the wind over a huge city, sending millions of copies of your work down for free on the entire population. How do you enforce your copyright? How will you know if anyone copies your work? This is what happens on the Internet.

The answer is simple, if you want to keep control of your work, do not post it on a public forum such as an online family tree program, Facebook etc. Chose your forum for publication carefully. If you find a violation of your copyright, you can certainly try to enforce your claims. Many large corporations are known for their aggressive enforcement of copyright and trademark claims. But as I have written many times in the past, genealogy is not particularly well suited for copyright claim arguments. I speak from experience that copyright claims are difficult for individuals to maintain as a practical matter. It can be done, but requires some considerable preparation and economic commitment.

Back to Anonymous. He or she obviously feels that the mere act of changing the content of the Family Tree violates some kind of owned right. This is exactly what I was addressing in my post. When you post to a wiki, you give up your claims to ownership. If you don't want to do that and want to lose the benefits of having an interactive, cooperative forum for your genealogy, that is your choice, but you are the one who loses. We also collectively lose because we do not benefit from your research and expertise.

Any content added to the Family Tree should be guided by the same principles guiding the FamilySearch Research Wiki. One of those basic principles is to "Relinquish Ownership." For a more detailed explanation of how the program should work, see FamilySearch Wiki:Policies. It is only good sense that these same policies should attach to the Family Tree.

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