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Overheard in GenForum: Unauthorized Use of Data
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

April 25, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: What can I do about people harvesting data from my web site? A couple of relatives are so blatant with this brand of theft that they just cut and paste from my site directly onto postings on message boards and mail lists. I have posted notices concerning privacy and copyright on my site, all to no avail. Is there some way to code the HTML at the web site that will prevent this kind of thievery? Would displaying my family history information in a PDF format do the trick? -- m cobb

A: The Internet offers genealogists many useful resources. We have found digitized books and documents that allow us to more quickly research our family tree. The Internet brings genealogists around the world into contact with each other. There are many ways in which the Internet aids us with our research. Of course, the key here is the research.

Some people do not understand that genealogy and the compiling of a family history is based on research. They believe that all they need do is visit a Web site and copy down the information they find on their ancestry. By the same token, there is much misunderstanding to what is protected by law and what should be protected because of ethics.

Facts, while hard won, are not copyrighted.

Understanding Copyright

Before we look at the ethics of what you see happening, it is important to first understand the legalities of what is happening.

Most of us have entered our family history into a genealogy program. When we have the program create Web pages, the genealogy software generates one of a select set of pre-configured reports, then generates that report in HTML so that we can upload it to the Internet. As a result, there has been no creativity on our part in what is found on that Web site, at least not where it pertains to the ancestry or descent of our family tree.

When we enter information into our genealogy program, we are entering the names, dates, and places we have found in our research. Our research comes from original records, such as vital records and census. Our research also comes from published resources such as family histories, cemetery abstracts and published wills.

All of this information is put into our genealogy program and our Web site is created. Copyright extends to the creative aspect of your Web site (for example, special graphics you may have created or family stories you told). Perhaps you have included digitized images of photographs you took of the tombstone or of a member of the family. All of this is copyrighted.

The facts that you have compiled, though, are not copyrighted. This means that as others come upon your Web site and find information on their lineage, they can use those facts without risking a copyright infringement. What this means is that they can use information found on your Web site.

Understanding Ethics

While the facts can be used by anyone, there is an ethics and a methodology in genealogy that requires us to cite the sources we use. A source is whatever we used to find a name, date, place or combination of those facts. The source could be any of a number of different records or published resources. In fact, while it may look like an individual has borrowed from your Web site, it is always possible that the person did similar research and found the same information as you.

Even if the individual did copy and paste directly from your site, provided it was just straight names, dates, and places, they have not done anything legally wrong. Ethically, however, if someone cuts and pastes your information, they should acknowledge where the information came from and should not claim it as their research. Of course, you would need to have a typo or a mistake or something identifiable to prove that they have copied your information. After all, if you and the other person have both independently and accurately researched the line, then you should both come up with the same information.

My Ancestors

Perhaps it is because we invest so much time researching our ancestors that we begin to think of them as just ours. Never mind that eventually others descended from the same person. Without the research of others, though, we likely would not be where we are in our research. And if we aren't citing all of our sources, even when we post the information online, then it is actually like we are claiming another person's research as our own — it is like the pot calling the kettle black!

In the end, we should each be citing all the sources we are using in compiling our family history. This is likely to include everything from published books to original records to information found on Web sites.

Protecting Your Code

While the information is not copyrighted, there are still ways that you can protect the Web site. Creating a PDF file is one option. You can share the information on the Internet and if anyone wants the information, they will need to write it down before they can share it again (thus deterring some from outright incorporating your information).

You may want to look into a software called Web Protector. This software apparently encrypts the Web page so that people cannot copy the text and paste it elsewhere. It is reasonably priced and may be something you will want to look into to help dissuade folks from directly copying and pasting from your site.

In Conclusion

It really sounds like you've worked hard compiling the family history that you published online. The thing to remember is that just as we relied on other people's research in compiling our family histories, others will want to rely on our research for theirs. Perhaps as they learn the craft of researching their family tree, they will begin to see the error of their ways in not citing sources.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at rhondagen@thegenealogist.com.

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