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Twigs & Trees with Rhonda: Give Back My Ancestors
by Rhonda R. McClure

January 10, 2002
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Every so often, I see discussion about the stealing of ancestors. A person feels wronged when they see what they think is their research under someone else's name online. I suspect this sense of ownership comes from the hard work we put into this hobby, not to mention the expense.

Recently I saw two different views to this discussion. In one case, an individual's ancestors were incorporated into the other person's database without attribution. In the other case, not only were the names used, but also the person's notes. I thought I would use both of these examples to examine the claim of stolen ancestors.

Can ancestors be owned?

She Took My Ancestors

Recently I received an e-mail from a woman who was truly upset to find what she claimed was her information in someone else's database. I was not surprised to hear this, as I get it frequently. And as with other cases, the information in question was apparently freely given. The problem now was that the other researcher was not acknowledging the origin of the data.

Usually the lack of attribution is not meant as a sign that the person set out to steal your ancestors. Instead, I usually see it as someone who does not understand some of the fundamentals in genealogy. In this case, it is the practice of citing sources.

Many of the researchers we correspond with are new to the hobby. Some of them have been introduced to the hobby from their involvement on the Internet through work or other avenues. Others have been introduced to the hobby through friends but they may not yet have read up on the hobby and some of the basic rules. One of the basic tenets of genealogy is to cite sources.

There is some misunderstanding about what is a source. If I find information in the census, then that census is my source. Likewise, if the information is given to me by a fellow researcher, and I do not take the time to verify it with original records, then the researcher who shared the information is my source. The researcher should be listed as supplying the information I am now publishing to the Internet.

Of course, one of the questions that often remains in my mind with such an accusation is how are they so sure the information is from them? In some instances, if the line goes down to those living today it might be easy to know they have incorporated information you shared. However, if we are talking about generations ago, it is entirely possible the individual got the information just as you did.

I have heard of people purposely putting misinformation into their data so they can identify it when others publish it. I hate to think of this happening. The point to genealogy is to publish the most accurate information we can. While we sometimes do have a wrong interpretation or have gone off on the wrong lineage, this is not done on purpose, and when we discover the mistake we should be trying to let everyone we have shared with know.

My Writing Not My Name

The other example I included was that of someone who published research on their own page. In this case, in addition to the facts, which are available to anyone, this person had included detailed notes as to where she was in her research. She included questions as to reliability of the records used. There was information as to the location of some of the records used. Some of those records were in the researcher's own files. She did not name herself, just said she had the records.

Another researcher found this Web page, incorporated everything, including the notes, into their database, then uploaded the database to an online compiled site. As others downloaded the information it was misleading. The second person really did not have any of those records, but it looks like they did because of the notes incorporated.

Such incorporation of information goes beyond sharing. The first researcher put the information on the Internet because of a desire to share and reach out to cousins. However, the person who came upon the information not only didn't cite a source, but took much more than the facts. In this instance, there is a case for copyright infringement. While the facts are not copyrightable, the notes are.

Again, this is usually not a case of malicious stealing, but of not understanding copyright and genealogy etiquette. The second researcher was just eager, perhaps a little too eager. In their eagerness they didn't stop to think that swallowing up the information found on the site was wrong.

In Conclusion

Many of us descend from the same people. If we have shared our information we give up any claim to that information and what can be done with it. By the same token, when we share, it is the responsibility of the other researcher to cite sources, including us before publishing the information on the Internet or in a book.

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

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