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Do You Own What You Upload?
by Gary B. Hoffman
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When is Data Really Yours?
Genealogy has always been enriched by the sharing of data, and always will. The ease of electronic family trees brings some new challenges with regard to ownership of data — Gary Hoffman outlines the potential difficulties and offers some solutions.

Modern genealogy programs make it easy to enter data about our ancestors and share that information with our relatives and others. In this article, I will bring several of these issues together to discuss the common sharing arrangement of "uploading" a genealogy file to an online service or CD-ROM publisher.

Why Do We Share Files?

There are many good reasons for sharing the results of our genealogical research: joy of sharing, desire for preservation, expectation of acknowledgment or reward. The most important reason is that sharing is a reciprocal act; we would not get very far in this pursuit unless others had shared their information with us. Besides, the facts underlying our pedigrees are not protected by copyright and are freely available if you know where to look.

Under U.S. law, the effort it takes to find basic facts does not give the fact-gatherer any proprietary rights to the data. We can't own these facts even though we've compiled them into a pedigree or other standard table. Of course, once you assemble these facts into a story, you are exercising "authorship" and can claim ownership of your narrative.

What Happens When You Share with a Publisher?

When we share our GEDCOM file or other program file with a large data publisher (meaning either an online service or a CD-ROM distributor), we are generally transmitting our lists of data. Just to make this point clear, before accepting our data, the publishers often notify us by means of a disclaimer statement that outlines their expectations about the data as well as their obligations. The legal standing of these "click-on agreements" has not been settled, but they nevertheless serve as notice of certain issues involved.

Most of us will click on the "accept" button without reading or understanding the many paragraphs of legalistic prose. But I recommend you do read them and try to understand the consequences of submitting your data. As a service — not to consumers, but suppliers, of data — I offer the following questions that you should ask before you agree to upload your data.

1. Does my data contain information about living people?

As I've written before, there are privacy issues relating to even truthful information about living persons. But if there are untruths, especially those that cast a living person in a bad light, defamation may be added to invasion of privacy. Some services require you to certify that you have received permission from all living persons in your file to submit it to them. Others gloss over the problem. The best advice is to purge your file of information relating to living persons. Find a utility program that will delete or obscure information on living people before you send the data file to a large public database or publish it on the World Wide Web.

2. Will the release of my name and address subject me to commercial solicitation?

One of the purposes of sharing is to find others working on your lines. However, there are some unscrupulous individuals who will "mine" a database for the names and addresses of its contributors in order to send them a commercial solicitation. Of course, one man's spam is another's consumer information. But most database vendors prohibit this type of data mining. Less clear is whether the vendor's own mailings are welcome communication.

3. Do I agree to respond to others who have inquiries about the ancestral data that I have submitted?

I've run in to many so-called genealogists who gather their data from other researchers, then send it off to a database publisher, but will never respond when you send questions about their data. Maybe they don't respond because they didn't do the research themselves and can't answer. Or maybe they got what they wanted and can't be bothered to help anyone else. (Of course, they might be deceased themselves and can then be excused for not replying.) I contend that if you are not ready to stand behind your research data and really "own up to it" then you shouldn't be the one to send it in. Let the real researcher submit it, who will help others with their research.

4. If I discover mistakes in my data, can I correct them later? Can I withdraw my submission at a later time?

Submissions to CD-ROM publishers will end up on a CD-ROM product and will be distributed far and wide. In such a case, it may be impossible to correct or withdraw the data. With some on-line databases who keep submitters' data in individual files, you might be able to send updates, corrections, or even withdraw the file from distribution. Of course, anyone who has downloaded it may have the erroneous data. Those services that merge each contributor's information into one large database are unlikely to offer any withdrawal, but they should offer a correction facility so that you can at least update the facts in your submission.

5. Will my source documentation be included in the database or only the basic identification of ancestors?

For mature researchers who have moved beyond the pedigree-gathering stage of genealogy research, the meat of the research is in the sources, not the names, dates, and places. Some people claim (including the proposed Genealogy Data Model) that the simple data of genealogy are merely "assertions" backed up by the source documents. If you don't include the documentation or you do submit it but it is not published, your pedigree is no better than a fairy tale, a nice story but not one that cannot be verified.

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