The Generations Network, Inc, the owner of Ancestry.com, MyFamily.com, Rootsweb.com, Genealogy.com, and Family Tree Maker, has released a statement about recent negotiations with the Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In short, the company is now halting the practice of giving free access to Ancestry.com to all Family History Centers. Thousands of genealogists have visited local Family History Centers in order to gain free access to services that normally cost $100 to $300 per year or more. Obviously, those people are going to be very disappointed with this news.
Here is the official announcement from The Generations Network, followed by my comments:
A STATEMENT FROM ANCESTRY.COM REGARDING THE RECENT ANNOUNCEMENT FROM THE FAMILY HISTORY CENTERS OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
On March 16, 2007, a communication was sent to the Directors of Family History Centers from the Worldwide Support management of the Family History Department. Ancestry.com wishes to clarify a number of points not addressed by this communication.
- For the past seven years, Ancestry.com has provided all Church family history centers free access to Ancestry.com without a formal licensing agreement in place or any compensation from the Church.
- Over the past several months, Ancestry.com has been working actively to reach agreement with the Church on a formal licensing arrangement by which it could continue to make its service available to the public for free. Unfortunately, the two parties were unable to reach an agreement on this matter.
- Ancestry.com strongly desires to have a licensing arrangement with the Church that would allow it to continue to provide free access to the public in Family History Centers. The company said it still hopes to create an acceptable agreement with the Church. The Ancestry Library Edition is available free to the public in over 1400 public libraries in the U.S. and U.K. via a similar licensing arrangement.
- Ancestry.com and the Church have cooperated over the years on a number of projects to digitize and index some important online databases. The Generations Network values its relationship with the Church and is committed to working closely with the Church and all players in the genealogy world to advance interest in family history across the world.
- Because of existing contractual agreements, a select number of Ancestry.com databases will continue to be accessible inside LDS Church family history centers. These include the 1880, 1900 and 1920 U.S. censuses, full name indices for the British 1841-1891 censuses (England and Wales), World War I draft cards, and a few additional smaller databases.
With more 23,000 searchable databases and titles, Ancestry.com is the No. 1 online source for family history information. Since its launch in 1997, Ancestry.com has been the premier resource for family history, simplifying genealogical research for millions of people by providing them with many easy-to-use tools and resources to build their own unique family trees. Ancestry.com is part of The Generations Network, Inc, a leading network of family-focused interactive properties, including MyFamily.com, Rootsweb.com, Genealogy.com, and Family Tree Maker. In total, The Generations Network properties receive 8.5 million unique visitors worldwide and over 400 million page views a month (© comScore Media Metrix, January, 2007).
Comments by Dick Eastman:
When I first heard this news, I was very disappointed. Any time an existing free service is canceled, the first feeling is one of disappointment. Even though I am saddened, I must also say that I am not surprised.
First, giving away a valuable service free of charge is probably not the best business plan I ever heard of. I am sure the company lost many thousands of dollars in revenue when people elected to use free access rather than paying for their own subscriptions. The Generations Network spends millions of dollars per year in scanning, OCR'ing, keying data, buying server farms, providing high-speed access to those servers, paying the salaries of the people who make all this happen, and so on. If the service they provide is valuable to genealogists, the company deserves a fair return on its investments. Giving away free access to a large number of your would-be paying customers is not a very good business plan.
Next, providing that free access for seven years without any sort of written agreement also is questionable. I doubt if any professor in any business school would approve. At a minimum, some sort of written agreement should have been in place years ago. If anything, the company is late at addressing this oversight.
I discussed the announcement briefly with two employees of The Generations Network. I do not know all the details, but I am told that company representatives have been negotiating with the Family History Centers to create a written agreement that was financially reasonable for both parties. The negotiators were unable to reach an agreement.
Finally, I know that The Generations Network sells online access to libraries and other non-profit and for-profit organizations. The pricing is more -or less the same as what other companies charge libraries for online access to other databases. I would assume that it is difficult to sell online access to any organization when it is already well known that your company gives away the same product free of charge to others. In short, The Generations Network has been undermining its own sales force.
I am also reminded of very elementary business "facts of life" that most of us learned in grammar school. I was always told that water was free. Nobody should ever have to pay for water. However, if we want the convenience of having clear, sanitary water delivered to us in the comfort of our own homes, day or night, it is reasonable and customary to pay the company that lays the water pipes under our streets, provides the pumping stations, and monitors the quality of the water delivered to our homes.
Providing online access to public domain government records is a similar business model. The documents are free. We can always view the records at any time without charge by traveling to the repository where the records are housed. We can obtain access to those records on site, usually during normal business hours. Those records remain as free as they ever were for those who visit in person.
However, if we want an added convenience of having images of those records delivered to us in our homes, on demand, any time of the day or night, we certainly should expect to pay for that added convenience. That is a value-added service above and beyond the ability to view a record in a distant repository.
In short, we should expect to pay for that added convenience.
Like the water department, Ancestry.com provides very big "pipes" that deliver lots of information to many genealogists. We all should expect to pay a reasonable charge for that added convenience. Any other plan not only puts the existence of this "pipeline" at risk, but also discourages other companies from entering the marketplace of providing valuable information to genealogists.
In the past, I have occasionally disagreed with business decisions made by managers at The Generations Network. However, this time I believe they made the right decision.
I suspect that lots of genealogists who never ran a business of their own will disagree with me. However, I bet those who ever had corporate financial responsibility and had to meet payrolls and pay creditors will agree.
- Dick Eastman