Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Behind the Shroud of Privacy

Information wants to be free...

So goes the saying, oft repeated by technology activists advocating for free access to everything from newspaper articles locked behind paywalls, to proprietaryand privilegeddetails of patents.

Strangely, that sentiment has found its way into the world of genealogical research, too, especially when mouthing the oft-repeated assertion, "Genealogical events cannot be copyrighted."

The instance prompting such an assertion is, of course, the howling protest of a researcher who has just realized her decades of hard work have been, with the click of an electronic wand, copied onto the online tree of someone who never bore the burden of such research effort. There seems to be no sympathy for those crying, "You stole my tree!"

Of course not. Nobody can steal a family tree. The fact that each of our ancestors has lived and diedand when and where such events had befallen themis duly noted in many public documents, all of which are available for the asking, if you know how to pursue such information. There is no way one researcher can claim exclusivity via copyright on such material.

And yet, despite the apparent glee with which some critics address the angst of such hardworking researchers, these downtrodden devotees of research persistence may well have a reason for the righteousness of their claim. It is not necessarily the facts embedded in the information that can be stolen, but the workmanship in stating one's genealogical hypothesis, formulating and executing the research approach, and publishing the findings of that process that should be honored as a specific researcher's contribution. And credited as such, as well.

I've recently been reading the usual screed on the subjectgenerally by one quite willing to heap the scorn of ad hominem attacks upon his opponentand it must have pushed me over the limit line. To save today's post from becoming too long, I'll continue this argument later in the week. Suffice it to say that, prompted by two brief events occurring just yesterday, I need to step up and deliver my mind on the topic. Perhaps those disabused researchers aren't as justly reamed out as we might suppose. There may be another side to the argument.

What came to my attention just yesterday, courtesy of two entirely opposite events, tipped my own opinion on the matter towards those maligned researchers. What happened was this: first, I ran across someone's family tree on Ancestry which gave every appearance of having wholesale copied my own. That, in and of itself, would not be a problem; I love helping others with their genealogical researchand besides, when it appears the interested party is actually a distant cousin, I love to meet such people and then enjoy the serendipity of then working jointly to solve genealogical puzzles of mutual interest.

The chill was that this researcher was not a relative. In fact, this researcher may have taken that material, turned around and sold those "discoveries" to someone who is a relative. I don't know how the professional genealogical world views such instancesafter all, those "facts" are publicly documentable (thus "free" to be shared), despite having cost me a considerable amount in having done sobut in my book, such behavior would border on unethical. If you get paid for the work, you should be the one who did the work.

I spent the better portion of the morning grumbling about the inequities of such sentiments of "information" being "free." Uppermost in my mind, by that point, was the relative advantages of hiding my own work safely behind a wall of its own: converting my trees from public to private status. Then, the only people who would be able to see my work would be the ones I carefully vetted and granted permission to access. I could police my own private world, and protect myself from any further such abuse.

It was a wonderful email that snapped me out of that foul reverie. Thankfully. From a fellow researcher whom I'd love to nominate as Genealogist Role Model of the Yearif there ever were to be such an awardI received a brief note powerful enough to brighten my mood and change my mind.

This writer began by explaining the context of her message: researching one of those messy families with multiple marriages, to each party of which were attached multiple children. She explained her quandary with that setting, and how it, somehow, connected with my tree. After providing her resolution, she concluded with the statement,
I just wanted to tell you how helpful your tree was in my search.

Did the lowering clouds just break up and give way to glorious sunshine? Did the flowers lift their faces upward, the birds start their cheerful response? Was that an angel choir I just heard singing?

Have you ever gotten a comment as encouraging as that? Who was this person? And where is she hiding her wings?

Had I tucked my tree behind that shroud of privacythat option for the hyper-vigilant, ever guarding their material so no one will "steal" their treeI would never have made contact with such a sterling fellow researcher. I would have kept that tree in its pristine condition, true, but in taking the risk to face the messy aspects of real life, I get to do just thathave a life. A life full of connections with real, living people who can share the kind of stuff I'd never otherwise find—and whom I can benefit, too, by reciprocating in kind. A life of enjoying friends in the research world whom I'd otherwise never have had the chance to meet.

Funny, but the very quote used by those seeking to force information out into the public, where it can be "free"free, also, to be stolen, misused, misattributedwas itself mis-represented.

The "information wants to be free" line was first credited to Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame. But that is only half of the story. The full statement was first presented like this:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

Later, Stewart Brand explained his thought in this more succinct form:
Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive.... That tension will not go away.

So the very phrase co-opted by those wanting to shame people for expecting any proprietary claim over the hard work they've done actually turns out to be misdirected. It is no such case at all, but an observation of the effect of opposing forces.

In the case of genealogy, it is easier to get one's tree out thereas also it is to assemble the information more completely and correctly. While "the right information in the right place" in a family tree may not be what "changes your life," I'm certainly glad to access it.

When it turns out that I'm the one who put that right information in the right place, I'd certainly appreciate credit for it. Even if it was gotten for freeor for the mere $298 of an annual world subscription to Ancestry.com. Information may want to be free, but I prefer some acknowledgement.


  1. Absolutely!! You should get credit for your research! :)

    1. You'd think this would be obvious, Far Side, but apparently, the right comment can serve as an excuse not to recognize the work of others.

  2. It is so rude not to acknowledge someone that has put a lot (or any) work into something - that another finds useful, helpful or even just entertaining... :(


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