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Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hey, You Stole My Family!

Nearly ten years ago I published an extensive family history online—an amateurish effort, but one that took considerable time to compile. It didn't take long for the vultures to circle, descend, and pick the carcass clean.

To be fair, I was a scavenger in those days as well, and those who copied wholesale from my site (I hope) paid the price later when some of the information proved incorrect. It stung, though, to find my hard-won conclusions turn up on the websites of strangers—most of them only distantly related, and interested only in how many kilobytes of data they could cram into their GEDCOMs.

Some call this behavior theft, piracy, or copyright infringement. I call it inevitable. I took down the family website years ago and replaced it with a scaled-down version, tracing the descendants of a single paternal ancestor through five generations, complete with notes and sources. This site, too, has seen its share of poachers, but I don't complain (at least not using my primary e-mail address).

The issue of copyright is a tricky one, and poorly understood, it seems, by everyone. There are thousands of websites offering conflicting advice on copyright and fair use (when you find two that don't conflict, one is generally a pirated copy of the other). A good place for the genealogist to start is with Mike Goad's Copyright Fundamentals for Genealogy. Even this is not the whole story, and Goad's statement that "the parts of copyright law that usually apply to genealogy are really pretty basic" is deceptive—especially with regard to the duration of copyright protection.

Without going into the intricacies of the law as I understand it, I have always found curious one aspect of copyright protection. We all know that "Facts can't be copyrighted." Genealogy is (or should be) about establishing facts. So, the facts included in a published genealogy cannot be copyrighted, though the arrangement of facts (if creative enough), and the narrative accompanying the facts, can be protected.

But "facts" can be fictional. Would the facts related in a work of fiction—say, about the families that dwell in Faulkner's fictional Yoknapatawpha County—be given more copyright protection than the "true" facts related in my family history? If so, we could have an unusual situation: a genealogist could make up names and dates, publish them in a genealogy, and then claim copyright infringement when they showed up online. Bad genealogy would be given more protection than good genealogy.

Think this fabrication doesn't happen? I have read of people slipping fictional names into cemetery transcriptions, or fudging the birth date of a great-great-great-uncle who died in infancy, just so they could detect if someone copied their information. These practices violate every unwritten rule of genealogy, but stem from an impulse felt by us all: we all want credit for our hard work, and to share the proceeds on our own terms.

As genealogists, we depend on the kindness of strangers; and our first instinct should be to share in kind. Each of us needs to determine how much (and to whom) we should share, and how much ingratitude and outright treachery we can stand.

In short, get used to sharing against your will.

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