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

Saturday, May 25, 2019

What is "Your" Family Tree? A New Addition to the Basic Rules of Genealogy

I frequently see genealogically oriented blog posts and advertisements that refer to "your family tree." and as I thought about this use of an ownership term, I decided that it was time to add a twelfth rule to the Basic Rules of Genealogy. If you are not familiar with the Basic Rules of Genealogy, I suggest you review the following blog posts:
I published the first six Rules of Genealogy back on July 1, 2014. See "Six of the Basic Rules of Genealogy." This short list included the most famous and basic rule of genealogy: "When the baby was born, the mother was there." I added four rules in a post back on August 11, 2017, entitled, "New Rules Added to the old: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited." Summer must be my time for thinking of new rules. You can go back to these two original posts to read about the details of each rule.
Then I added one more rule back on August 2, 2018, in this blog post, "A New Rule Added: The Rules of Genealogy Revisited Again." Now it is time to add yet another rule. Here is the list for reference:
Here is a list of those original six rules from 2014:
  • Rule One: When the baby was born, the mother was there.
  • Rule Two: Absence of an obituary or death record does not mean the person is still alive.
  • Rule Three: Every person who ever lived has a unique birth order and a unique set of biological parents.
  • Rule Four: There are always more records.
  • Rule Five: You cannot get blood out of a turnip. 
  • Rule Six: Records move. 
In 2017, I added these four rules:
  • Rule Seven: Water and genealogical information flow downhill
  • Rule Eight: Everything in Genealogy is connected (butterfly)
  • Rule Nine: There are patterns everywhere
  • Rule Ten: Read the fine print
Well, we now have another rule.
  • Rule Eleven: Even a perfect fit can be wrong
The new rule is easy to remember:

Rule Twelve: You do not own your ancestors

Unless you come from a long line of parents who were both only children and who were all descended from only children, you have a lot of relatives. You may not know who all these people are but you do have a lot of them. In fact, your relatives likely number into the billions. For example, on one of my online family tree programs on, I have more than a 100,000 Smart Matches™that indicate I have about that many relatives who share the information I have on that particular family tree. If you are one of these people who believe you have traced your ancestry back to Adam or whatever, you automatically can claim billions of relatives. So which one of those relatives owns all that potential genealogical information? This "my" and "your" possessive language is not just misleading, it is pernicious and false. I guess you could accurately talk about "my family tree on or if you are referring to the file itself, but the contents of "your" family tree don't belong to you or anyone else.

Here in the United States, we have a very pervasive "ownership" point of view. We add the idea of "my" to almost everything when we will all die and then who owns all those "my" things? Genealogy gives us an open field of things that we cannot even conceptually "own" beginning with our ancestors. We all share our ancestors with all of their descendants. We do not and cannot conceivably "own" anything about our ancestors.

Our legal system in the United States can give us an illusion of ownership, but ultimately, everything we have here on this earth is shared with everyone else who is living and has ever lived, including, but not limited to the air we breathe. Hence, Rule Twelve.


  1. I have always said I do not own my ancestors, I own my research time, effort and findings should I, myself, do the finding. I do not own public, government, church, etc documents I find. That said, when I have done the research and written it up with the inclusion of personal photos, documentations and my research, then it is my work and should be protected from at least being reprinted or sold without my permission. Which is why I do not put it out on any public or paid for site. I share with family and other researchers when asked, but I ask that they not publicly share what I have done but use what I have for their own research plan.

    1. I understand your position just as long as you realize that your claims to ownership are culturally based and you need to think about what will happen to all that work once you die.

    2. Mere sweat of the brow does NOT provide copyright protection. Feist v Rural in the US. Even in the EU with its sui generis database right that right only lasts 15 years from the last substantive change to the database.

      Would personal photos be copyrighted? Unless they are merely photographs that copy archival documents then yes they would be. Would narrative components of your research be copyrighted? Yes they would be to the extent that they are your own work.

      Family trees are mere compilations of facts in almost all cases. They differ from telephone directories in the method of arrangement, but arranging family trees by family groups is NOT an original enough form of arrangement to attract copyright protection. There is only one possible form of correct arrangement for a biological family tree (what the vast majority of people do research on).

      When it comes to reproduction without your permission, what loss would you suffer from such a reproduction? Are you a professional genealogist? If so then you might be able to argue that you would suffer monetary loss. However even then professional genealogists tend to be employed on unique, new cases for clients and it is the clients paying them for the research time. The professional genealogist would not make money from flogging copies of the research once done.

      If looking at your work I where it intersected one of my direct or collateral lines I would have no hesitation in using it to further improve a public tree. Where appropriate I would source so plagiarism would not come into things. I would also not reproduce copyrightable elements such as personal photographs or narrative content. However the structure of the tree itself? Fair game.

    3. In addition, I think it is interesting that for years I have been searching the Federal Cases for copyright cases and almost all I find were instigated by large corporations. There are virtually no cases involving issues that even remotely relate to genealogical research. Filing a lawsuit to claim a copyright violation involves spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In addition, even if you won, you might or might not recover those fees even though fees can be awarded by statute.

    4. Then there's also the recent case Fourth Estate v where it was held that in order to proceed with a copyright infringement case in the United States a valid copyright registration must be in place with some very, very minor exceptions. That's a further block in the road to a genealogical copyright case being initiated by a genealogist. After all how many of them would even have heard of copyright registration, let alone know of the requirement of Fourth Estate v

    5. Exactly, thanks for the additional note.

  2. "My" and "your" don't determine accuracy. It's the evidence that matters.

    1. You are right and I strongly agree. But when dealing with the FamilySearch Family Tree, the attitude of ownership creates a whole series of problems including anger and frustration when entries are changed with or without supporting documentation.

  3. Under Rule 3: "Every person who ever lived has a unique ... set of biological parents." While that IS true, over the past 50 years, as I have been working on my family tree, I have never searched for "biological parents." I have always searched for legal parents. In other words, I have searched for paper proof of the parents of my ancestors. This paper proof has taken the form of family bible records, marriage records or divorce records, death records, wills, probate records, deeds, court records, letters, etc. All of that tends to prove who someone's legal parents are, and none of it proves who their "biological parents" are. From my perspective, the search for biological parents is something that has started only in the last few years, with the rise of DNA testing. But, there is no guarantee that your biological gr-gr-gr-grandparent (who may have just been the mailman) is also the legal parent of your gr-gr-grandparent.

    1. You are correct. I agree. However, the Family Tree also provides for Adoptive, Foster, Guardianship and Step parent relationships with children. Going back in time to a third great-grandparent is where the issue begins. The presumptive relationship is biological unless a record suggests otherwise. I have always maintained that a worldwide tree should recognize other cultural family relationships that correspond to biological parenthood in our Western European concept of a family. For example, in some cultures a child is nurtured and cared for by a grandparent or an uncle or aunt. In our own culture here in the United States, more than half of the families are blended with one or more sets of parents.