Feb 182016

To whom it may concern:

I am writing today in the hope that you can take action over a very important issue. As a subscription-based service provider, your company has invested time and money digitising, transcribing and indexing records for the benefit of those of us who are keen (whether it be amateur or professional) family historians. We – a large proportion of the genealogical community – very much appreciate and value the work your companies are doing on our behalf to make more records available to us online (whilst continuing to enjoy the times when we have to ‘get our hands dirty’ with original documents and sources which are not available on our new-fangled gizmos). The rate at which you are adding resources is simply staggering and well worth the subscription fees we pay to access these records.

However, some people appear to have access of these records we pay for, without paying. How, you may ask? And you would be right to ask….! Do these characters have clever ways of hacking into your sites without paying? Are there flaws in your security systems? No and no.

These individuals are far from clever. They neither value nor respect the work that you are doing for the genealogical community and consider it their right to have free access to what they want. I wonder – would they expect to have a case heard in court, be represented by a solicitor and pay nothing? I am sure their plumbing and heating engineer would not turn up, fix their boiler and walk away without being paid. So, why is your service any different?

It isn’t. You have terms and conditions, fair usage policies, copyright restrictions and more, all available on your websites. Recently, two of The In-Depth Genealogist team interviewed Jill Ball, Judy G. Russell and I about exactly this topic. We expressed our concerns about Facebook groups offering look-ups from your websites and today, a vocal few tried to educate members of one Facebook group about the T&Cs they signed up to when they paid for their membership. It was clear that our comments were not welcomed by certain members of the group and a few individuals appear to think that they are ‘providing a service’ to the genealogical community by giving others free access. An interesting perspective when they are breaching the conditions of use…. When these individuals were politely directed to these conditions, they seemed to think that the appropriate course of action was not to read the conditions and consider their obligations, but to criticise the people who were trying to assist in the group, before removing their posts and then blocking the vocal members of the community.

The problem is, my dear Commercial Genealogy Company, that none of you jump up and down and do anything about these breaches. OK. I get it. You want all the genealogists to use your websites. You want us all to be your friends out here in genie-land. BUT, you are losing revenue because these individuals are providing copies of your records to others for free. If you banned a handful of people for ‘misuse of their subscription’ (or whatever you want to call it) and named and shamed them, more people would use your sites because they can no longer get what they want for nothing.

We – the respectful genealogical population – are trying to support you out here. I would urge you to get your moles out as well as listen to and act on the issues reported by the community. Join these Facebook groups and flush out the people/group who are breaking your rules. If you don’t, we will all suffer and the only winners in this game will be these who are getting their research done for nought.

Yours sincerely, A Seriously Concerned Genealogist.

  21 Responses to “Open letter to Commercial Genealogy Companies”

  1. Spot on, Kirsty. I’ll be sharing this far and wide.

    • Thanks Jill. It’s just infuriating. The ‘big names’ really need to stamp down on this. Pronto, in my opinion.

  2. To enhance understanding it would be helpful if you’d explain what limitations an ethical professional genealogist respects in using Ancestry or another commercial database in their business that keeps them within the bounds of the T&Cs when reporting to their client. Presumably those bounds are no different for volunteers than professionals.

    • John – thanks for your comment on this. I can clarify from the Ancestry T&Cs: “For the duration of your subscription, you may only access the Websites personally with an individual browser or mobile application (bots, crawlers, spiders, scraping and other automatic access tools are prohibited), use graphics, information, data, editorial and any other Content only for personal or professional family history research…” and many other sites (without boring readers with quotes from each) state the same.

      The difference that we are talking about here is that some FB groups are set up precisely to breach the conditions set out, i.e. for people to provide free look-ups to anyone wants them in large volume. Professional family history research = provided by someone authorised to do a FULL family history research project for a client, not just someone willing to use their subscription to provide random/assorted/various others who haven’t paid with free access to specific resources.

  3. What an interesting topic and I was not aware of it. Is helping others in genealogy Facebook groups using FamilySearch records alright? Posting the links (not the records) ? Just wondering as I help folks out a lot in our groups.

    • From FamilySearch is fine, Magda. It’s free! So, all you are providing is help with searching and nothing that is not available to the general (non-subscription) public. Please keep offering your help and advice. That’s what it’s all about! 🙂

  4. Thanks for writing about one of my pet peeves! I know many people will claim they have no idea they were doing something wrong as I am sure they did not read the T&C when they signed up. Just as in copyright infringements, ignorance should not be an excuse. I do agree that the companies could and should do a better job in bringing this to their subscribers attention.

    • “I had no idea I was breaking the speed limit, your honour!” Erm – speeding fine/ticket issued, none the less! Ignorance is no defense.

  5. An interesting point which, as a paying subscriber of these services, I’m minded to agree with in theory, but how do you propose the subscription based companies enforce this?

    Also, there’s an abundance of folks out there who like to carry out research for friends or neighbours as part of their personal genealogy hobby, should this rule apply to them too?

    • Louise, I think there is a massive difference between what you describe and the various FB groups out there whose members openly offer lookups and provide screenshots, etc. from subscription-based sites and/or publications. Yours is the snowflake and the other side of the coin is the avalanche!

  6. Kirsty…well said!

  7. Quite a few of the records available on Ancestry under subscription are available free elsewhere if you care to look for them
    Ancestry is not the be all and end all and actually has many errors and omissions and I would never rely on it without double checking official records many of which are available free (all depending on what country you live in)

    • Very true. Cross referencing is definitely a good idea. That was one thing that frustrated me when I had a subscription to Ancestry.com. While census records may not be 100% accurate (spelling, etc.), I usually get some pretty good leads and familysearch.org has made it much easier for me to access the census records.

  8. This is something that Family History Societies have suffered from for many years – before the advent of the commercial companies.

  9. I don’t use Facebook, so I didn’t know this is a big problem. But I do have subscriptions to several of these large commercial companies, and have noticed that on one in particular the public family trees are full of copyrighted material copied without permission from other websites. It doesn’t appear that this company is policing its own subscriber-provided content. Maybe that’s where they should first focus their attention. And maybe Facebook itself should start addressing the problem of illegal postings to its own groups.

  10. Kirsty, great that you are carrying on the discussion. You are right that the big companies too need to step up and do more to protect their material. We can only do so much. Facebook too should be more responsive to reports by users about posts requesting material from copywrite sites. Go Giirl!

  11. I don’t rely on Ancestry, MyHeritage, Genes Reunited etc as my sole sources- prefer to go direct to the Registry Offices (either online or in person). What I dislike is these providers sending me ‘matches’ that in fact come from MY research! (but that’s another issue). Have you considered that these companies are NOT missing out on revenue, because a lot of the people wanting ‘free’ look-ups don’t have the money to pay the (rather high) costs?

  12. I am careful when I help some one. If I cannot find it on a free site I do not post the record and even when I do find it on a free site I always post the link. Thank-you for making me feel good, by supporting my thinking, sometimes I wondered if I should look up on a paid site. Some times we need to hear the rules to make sure we are following them.

  13. Many libraries and institutions have legal subscriptions with some of these on-line commercial genealogical companies and anyone with a library card can go there if their local library or institution offers this subscription. Or one can travel to one and usually get a temporary guest library card. I would caution those who ask others to acquire the info legally or otherwise as they might get the wrong info and then the entire validity of their family tree is questionable. It is important to analyze ALL the data appropriately, and correctly and one needs so much additional data gathered to analyze data properly. And a librarian can help you do that analysis too.

  14. Does the author have the right to tell me not to put up the photo on my website? How about if I put it on a family tree website of some sort?

    • If the photograph isn’t yours, you need to ask the owner if you can use it. If it doesn’t belong to you, check first before doing anything with it in public!

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