Who owns your family history? You? The original researcher? The global family connected to it? Who Owns Your Family History


Not too long ago, I retweeted, without much forethought, a quote by Rosemary Alva. “We Don’t own our family history. We simply preserve it for the next generation.”

Lynn Broderick, who blogs at The Single Leaf, commented on it. “… A documented #Genealogy is never FREE. In essence, the one who does the work owns it, or at least, we owe them.” It got me thinking.

Of course, she’s right. But that wasn’t the way I interpreted the quotation.

Let’s break it down.  Who owns a family history versus a documented genealogy?

Legally Speaking

“Ownership” of a genealogy comes down to copyright. Since I’m not a lawyer and staying at a Holiday Inn once really doesn’t count, I looked for outside sources.

Gary B. Hoffman’s post, “Who Owns Genealogy? Cousins and Copyright” contains and wealth of information and insight.

Hoffman states, “The basic facts of a person’s life may be freely copied; they are in the public domain.” That’s something that you can’t get around regardless of how hard-fought the unearthing of that data is.

That means that a simple pedigree chart is not copyrightable. However, he explains, if you add a “modicum of creativity” you can claim copyright protection. What constitutes a “modicum of creativity”?  Stories. Photos. Illustrations. Just the things I advocate adding to your genealogical facts.

But, does that mean you should lock them up?

Owning versus a Debt of Gratitude, Good Manners, and Playing Nice in the Sandbox

One time I let my neighbor borrow a window air conditioning unit.  Fifteen odd years later, she moved. Even though she undoubtedly had “squatters” rights to my AC, she asked me about it.

In other words, she was gracious and appreciative.

And that’s all that many genealogists desire, something that the Internet doesn’t foster. People copy the research of decades in a hot minute. Resulting, as Lynn Broderick points out, in many of our senior researchers—the ones who gallivanted from courthouse to courthouse, library to library and cemetery after cemetery to unearth these un-copyrightable facts, long before digitized records—feeling cast aside.  (I’m hoping she writes her own post about this.)

There’s a cut-and-paste-and-claim-as-your-own problem in the land of online trees.

Imagine you made brownies for a public event. You stand by the table, inviting members of the public to take one.  They technically don’t “owe” you anything. But wouldn’t it grate on you if none said,“Thank you”?

Wouldn’t it chaff even more if you overheard this conversation?

“Who made these?”

“I dunno. They’re free. Who cares?

That’s why some people feel disrespected when their research is attached, willy nilly (or is it dilly dilly now?) to online trees.

Ironic right? Of all hobbies, family history should be the LAST one that fails to honor its elders.

Back to the Question: Who Owns Your Family History?

My interpretation of Rosemary Alva’s words: Philosophically, family history cannot be owned. The facts and the stories are our communal backstories. Our whys and hows.

Uncle Jack and Aunt Ann

My aunt Ann and uncle Jack

Of course, I learned family history research at the Ann Myrick Crymes school of finding your roots.

I revere the work that my late aunt, Ann Crymes, did over decades to document the Crymes family history. I’m not the only researcher that owes a ginormous debt of gratitude for her trips to court houses and grave-yards, her deep knowledge of all the Lunenburg County, Virginia families.

But I also know that the reason Aunt Ann spent countless hours at copy machines, assembling binders for all the Crymes children and grandchildren was that she didn’t think she owned the family history. Keep in mind, the closest Kinko’s to Aunt Ann’s farm was probably 45 minutes away, and as late as 2013 she was still using a dial up modem.

She knew that each new piece of the puzzle, was a new chapter in our family memoir. A flashback. An epilogue. A deeper understanding of where we came from. An almost spiritual glimpse into our DNA.

Her attitude isn’t unusual. The vast majority of genealogists and researchers are extremely generous when it comes to helping others find their ancestors.

The laws and ethics of how we share and publish those stories do not make them any less our history.  We do, however, need to use a little common sense and courtesy.

Adopting Missing Parts of Your Family’s Story: Laws and Ethics Matter

What about stories that you find online?

Whether these stories “belong” philosophically to all of us or not, that doesn’t mean they’re brownies to grab and munch without permission, citation, or thanks.  And, regurgitating said brownies for all your friends to share is just gross. Especially if you don’t mention the baker by name.

Gary B. Hoffman points out that simply citing the author may not be enough. If you’d like to use more than a sentence or two, you should “seek out” and ask the compiler’s or author’s permission. Which, in today’s world, means a few extra clicks of the mouse or taps on the screen.

The article Courtesy, ethics and law by Judy G. Russell, the legal genealogist, pretty much lays this out. I don’t want to summarize what she writes because you really should read it yourself.  But just in case you don’t click over, I’ll give you a spoiler. Anything less than giving “credit where credit is due” amounts to theft.

Your Turn:

Who does your family history belong to What’s your experience been with others using your research? Have other researchers been generous with their work? Have they helped you along? Share your thoughts.


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