08 June 2012

Public vs. Private

As genealogists, most of us want to share our information. Sometimes I think it's just because we're excited at the prospect of someone else being interested! Unfortunately it's easy to become disillusioned when someone copies your hard work onto a junk tree. We post our trees to Ancestry.com, or some other genealogy site, hoping to find family and instead we find name collectors and people whose trees have gone off the rails.
The cold, hard truth is, if you don't want anyone to misuse your photos or documentation, don't share them. EVER. Cynical? Maybe but once a single copy of your research or photos has left your hands you have no control over where it is posted. So if it will upset you to see a photo from your tree attached to someone you’ve never heard of, don't post it publicly online. If you still want to have a tree online one option on Ancestry.com is to make your tree private. Your tree will show up in searches as will items attached to your tree but someone would have to contact you to get the details. If you don’t want to share at all there's an additional box to check in the private tree option: "Also prevent your tree from being found in searches." No one will contact you to ask how you're related to John Smith because they won't know there's a John Smith in your tree.
Having said all that, I have a public tree. If you've been reading this blog for a while you know it's not because I haven't had items "stolen" yet. (That tree has not been fixed by the way.) I did consider making my tree private after that happened but then what? Does the error-ridden tree that includes some of my information get copied by others? Do I let my photos, at least one of which is attached to the wrong person, exist on this horrible tree and keep the correct info hidden? I decided instead to keep my tree public. When I notice errors being made in someone else’s tree I write a story stating the differences. For anyone who connects, or has connected, to that person on my tree the story should pop up as a hint. If they choose to ignore it well,...I can always use their tree for a future blog post. [insert evil laugh]
I’m not saying everyone should have a public tree. There are numerous reasons to have a private tree. Here's a few just off the top of my head but I'm sure there are many more:
1. The family skeletons are fairly recent and your family isn’t ready to make them dance yet. Illegitimate children, murder, incest...you want to include it but also want your family to continue speaking to you.
2. Family members may be more willing to write stories about their childhood or memories of a person or place if they know the only people reading it are family.
3. A relative has given you access to their research provided you don’t post it publicly online.
4. You want to make sure someone is related before allowing them access to your tree.
5. It’s the only way to make sure people ask before taking your photos, documents, stories, etc..
6. There is a lot in your tree that you are unsure about. Keeping it private keeps others from copying information that may turn out to be incorrect.
7. Despite repeated messages saying, "This is not the family you're looking for", one person keeps adding your family to their tree. (Was I the only one that went back and read that as Obi-Wan?)
All valid. Even if the reason was, "The government is tracking me so I can't let my tree show up in a search." Paranoid? Yes but it's their tree and their decision to make.
There have been a number of online posts lately complaining that someone didn’t ask before attaching items from a public tree. Considering the amount of activity in my “Recent Member Connect Activity” I’m glad people don’t ask. Do people really want to spend half their day answering messages and checking other trees to make sure the person asking is related? If you want people to ask, make your tree private. If your tree is public, what happens if you say no? The other person can just download your item and upload it their tree as their own. Besides, you already gave permission when you agreed to the terms and conditions for Ancestry.com.
"But...but...copyright!" So you took that photo of your great-great-grandfather? And I don’t mean you "took it" from Grandma’s photo album but that you physically held the camera and pressed the button. No? You may have the photo in your hand but if you weren’t the one holding the camera when it was taken you probably don’t own the copyright. (There are a few exceptions. You can read more about it here.) If you were the person holding the camera then you can only take action if someone downloads the photo and uploads it as their own. Want to argue that someone attaching your upload to their tree is a violation of your copyright? An argument can also be made that by uploading your photo to a site that had sharing capabilities, is in fact known for it's sharing capabilities, with no privacy settings on your tree, you wanted to share the photo and were not concerned about copyright. Did you seriously think no one would attach it to their tree?
"But...but...I paid for that record that I scanned! Copyright!" You do not own the copyright on a scanned document. You had no hand in the creation of that document, which is where the copyright would be. Creating a scan of that document does not equal copyright. If you paid for the record and think others should pay to get their own copy don’t post it on a public tree.
"But...but...they copied Grandma's profile!" "Grandma's profile" has a list of facts (i.e. birth date, place of marriage, etc.). Facts (dates and places) are not subject to copyright. If you write a story about Grandma's life, whether it's one paragraph or ten pages, you own the copyright to that. But anyone can pull the facts out of it for use on their tree. If they publish your story verbatim without your permission then you would have a case. That is unless your story is just a list of facts with a few prepositions thrown in.
One concern for both public and private online trees is, "What happens to it when I'm gone?" If your tree is public the information will be shared long after you're gone. Trees are not removed when the owner dies but you might want to make it easy for someone in your family to pick up where you left off. Write your username and password down and keep it with your important papers. If your tree is private it's even more important that you do this. If you don't share your username and password or specifically ask for your files (paper, digital and genealogy software) to be passed to someone in your family your research could die with you.
Sorry to be so morbid but who knows the reality of this more than a genealogist?

NOTE: Many of you have probably noticed that I have not addressed the fact that those with private trees can attach items from public trees. I know that's a sore point with a lot of people. Honestly, it doesn't bother me. If you want to complain about that issue you are welcome to do that in the comments or you can write a post on your own blog ;-)


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  1. I'm a little late commenting here (I feel behind on my Google Reader and I'm just catching up!), but I wanted to speak up because I've actually been thinking about this topic a lot lately. I just wrote a somewhat related post on my blog: http://storiesofacanadianfamily.blogspot.ca/2012/06/its-mine-all-mine.html

    I always side with putting everything out there. I do respect the privacy of living family members, but I never privacy-protect older stuff. That's part of what's awesome about WikiTree, compared to online trees on Ancestry, etc. Each person can have a different privacy setting, rather than just the whole tree.

    I totally agree with your point about how if someone uses part of your tree and messes it up, it's better to leave yours up, because then at least the right tree is out there too!

    Lianne Lavoie
    Stories of a Canadian Family

  2. My goal is always to have the best public tree possible with the most accurate information I can and more pictures and stories than anyone else. Then people will rely on my tree as their main source for information instead of that one weird tree that has the grandson as his own grandfather's brother and a random picture of a former president listed as their ancestor "John Smith." If I can out-inform the other trees that are wrong, make my public tree look the best, and *also* back my facts up with good solid sources, then I've won the day.

    Of course, this is an eternal work-in-progress because some parts of my family tree are better fleshed out than others, but I feel a little bit of success when online cousins tell me that they get all of their genealogy "news" about our shared family from my tree.

    But the point is, why would I hide all of that precious information? If I did that I'd forfeit the battle for genealogical truth. And that would make my work as a genealogist a complete waste.