The past few weeks have been fascinating. We saw Ancestry.com deliver a search engine that focused primarily on genealogy resources. The service was designed to simplify the process of finding family history information that many people would not be able to find easily because it is often scattered among numerous websites across the Internet. However, the service quickly became controversial as genealogists discovered various features that some felt were inappropriate, including caching of web sites and the use of HTML frames that hid the origin of a page obtained from another web site. Ancestry pulled the service after only a few days.
I watched the various comments fly back and forth with somewhat mixed emotions. I agreed entirely with some of the messages posted and disagreed with others. More than a few surprised me. In numerous cases, I thought to myself, "That's the way everyone does it. Not to say that it is right or wrong, only that it is common practice."
While Ancestry.com caught the heat recently, everything I will write about in the rest of this article applies to all search engines, all message boards, all online genealogy databases and to all publicly-visible web pages. It applies to the now-defunct Ancestry.com Internet Biographical Collection as well as to Rootsweb, OneGreatFamily.com, FamilySearch, Google, Yahoo, Dogpile, Alexa, HotBot, AOL Search, Lycos, and the genealogy-specific search engine at WeRelate.org. These are ideas I would like to share concerning what to do and what not to do when you place information on the World Wide Web.
While I call these "rules," they are really suggestions. These "rules" are just a start. I suspect you can think of additional "rules." If you can add more, please post your suggestion(s) in the comments section below.
OK, here are "Eastman's Rules of Posting Genealogy Information Online," a new set of rules invented today:
- If you don't want everyone to know about something and use that something as they wish, don't post it online! There are no secrets after you post information online. You can claim copyrights or legal protection, but the fact remains that information placed on the web quickly becomes common knowledge. You may be correct in thinking that nobody else should ever reuse your information, but not everyone will agree with you. Regardless of your intentions, some people will re-use your data elsewhere. Getting the data removed later will be difficult and frustrating. Think before you post!
- Keep in mind that all search engines will index your site (unless you take steps to do otherwise as listed in Note #1 below), and most of them will cache the information. One web site (www.archive.org which is not a true search engine) will cache your data more or less forever, even if you later change or remove your data.
- A few specialty search sites will charge their subscribers a fee to search your site and millions of others. General-purpose search engines, such as Google, are usually free to the user. Specialty search engines that look only for financial data, legal data, real estate transactions, sports scores, etc. typically charge a fee. The more specialized the search engine, the higher the fee. Some charge very high prices. You and I don't hear much about the fee-based search engines, but they exist, nonetheless.
- Facts are not copyrighted, at least not under U.S. law. If your web page contains only names and dates and locations of life events (birth, marriage, death, census entries, military service, etc.), you do not own that information. It is public domain.
If your page(s) contains additional descriptive information, interpretations, stories, or other information that you wrote, the original information you added might be copyrighted. However, the dividing line between copyrighted information and public domain information is often fuzzy. Even legal experts who specialize in intellectual property issues often disagree with each other. You should realize that not everyone is going to agree with your interpretation of the legal issues involved.
Actually, all of this is probably a moot point anyway. Whether legal or not, it is very difficult to force someone to remove copies of information you supplied.
Never assume. You may have strong opinions concerning what is right or wrong, but not everyone will agree with you. Ask yourself, "What will happen if I place this information online?" Be realistic!
The above are a few of my thoughts. Again, if you have further suggestions for additional "rules," please post your thoughts in the comments section at the end of this article.
If you do want to place genealogy information (or any information) on the World Wide Web and do not want your information to be found by search engines, there is a simple way to do so: create a ROBOTS.TXT file and place it on your web site. Thousands of web sites do this already when they don't want certain information to become too public. There are many web sites that will explain ROBOTS.TXT and tell you how to add such a file to your site. Start here: http://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&q=create+robots.txt+file&btnG=Google+Search. Once you add a ROBOTS.TXT file to your web pages, your information will disappear from all search engines within a few months. However, don't be surprised if nobody visits your site anymore. It will be rather well hidden.
If you are willing to have some search engines index and cache your site but do not want all search engines to do so, you can be selective. Again, the solution is a ROBOTS.TXT file. You can exclude specific search engines by name. The format of the commands is a bit tricky, so study the instructions carefully. Start here: http://www.google.com/search?source=ig&hl=en&q=create+robots.txt+file&btnG=Google+Search.
You should realize that search engines are not perfect. Even the specialty search engines designed for a specific purpose will erroneously add some extraneous data. The search engine's filters may interpret words differently than a human would. For example, a financial services search engine might add your genealogy data to its search engine if your ancestor was named James Penney or Ezekiel Dollarhide. Likewise, a genealogy-specific search engine may add a page that describes the "roots of New Orleans jazz," and a real estate search engine may add information about "the history of the House family."