I published this article three years ago. However, the same issues have raised their ugly heads again several times in recent weeks so I am going to republish the article. I have changed the wording slightly on a few sentences to reflect my latest thoughts, but it is close to the original article.
One thing has changed in the past three years: Ancestry.com is now a sponsor of this newsletter. However, this article reflected my views before the company became a sponsor and my views haven't changed since.
Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
I have a complaint that may upset some people, including some who read this newsletter. I will probably lose some readers because of this article, but I don't care. Like many of my readers, I feel so strongly about this issue that I just have to speak out – hold the sugar coating.
Some people are so shortsighted that they manage to ignore certain facts that are blatantly obvious to others.
I am amazed at the folks who actually believe this bit of misinformation. In fact, information that was free in the past remains free today and probably will always be free. In the United States, this is dictated by Federal law. That is true now, it has always been true, and will always be true unless Congress changes the laws. Until then, the information will remain free to all of us in the same manner that it always has been available. Information that was free to all of us last year or ten years ago or thirty years ago is still free today and most likely will remain free for many more years.
By Federal law, public domain information has always been available to all of us free of charge. All we ever had to do was to travel to the location where the information is available, be it in Washington, D.C. or Salt Lake City or at a nearby library or at some other archive. The information is free although we might have to pay a modest fee for photocopying. If we don't want to pay a photocopying fee, we always have the option of transcribing the information by hand. That free access is not changing by the simple act of some web site placing the information online. By Federal law, that information will continue to be available free of charge to anyone and everyone who wishes to travel to the location where the information resides. There is absolutely no change to this free access.
What *IS* changing is that we now have more methods of obtaining that information. While we can continue to access it at no charge in the old-fashioned way, we now also have new avenues that didn't exist a few years ago – specifically, online. Companies that seek out this free information and then invest thousands of dollars in scanners, servers, data centers, high speed (and expensive) connections to the Internet backbones, programmers, support personnel, and all the other expenses are allowed to charge a fee for that access. However, the old-fashioned, in-person free access remains exactly the same as before: free.
Let me draw an analogy: water is free. If I want water, I can go to the local river or lake with a bucket and get all the water I want at no charge. But if I elect to use a more convenient method, the local water company spends money laying pipes under the street and across my lawn to my house. I then have to pay a fee for that higher level of service. I pay for those pipes and the pumps that push the water through the pipes. I also pay for the maintenance to keep those pipes and pumps in good working order so that the water is available to me at my convenience, whenever I want it. Nobody forces me to pay for the water and the associated equipment needed to provide convenient access to water; I am still free (literally!) to obtain water the old-fashioned way without paying for it. The choice is mine to make. In effect, I am paying for the convenience.
The same is true for public information: the information remains free, but genealogists expect to pay a fee for the expensive "pipes" that deliver that information to our homes at our convenience.
For me and for most other Americans, it is cheaper to pay for online access (Ancestry.com, Footnote.com, WorldVitalRecords.com, etc.) than it is to take a trip to Washington, D.C. like I used to do. Using one of these online services actually REDUCES my expenses significantly. In "the old days," I used to pay a lot more money to travel to distant repositories than what I pay today to access those same records.
I am very thankful that commercial services make the information available for a modest fee so that I no longer have to pay exorbitant travel expenses. (Have you priced automobile gasoline or airline tickets lately?)
I am appalled that some people apparently expect a company to spend millions of dollars gathering free records, spend money scanning it, spend money building data centers, spend money buying servers and disk farms, spend money on high-speed Internet connectivity, spend money for programmers, spend money on customer support personnel, and spend money on advertising to let you know that the information is available, and then expect that same company to make the information available free of charge!
Where did these people learn economics? At the Tooth Fairy University?
Ancestry.com is the most-often mentioned commercial company in the business of delivering public records online for a fee, although it certainly is not the only company in that business. Let's use that company as an example but the issues I will describe apply to almost all the other companies in the business of delivering online information of interest to genealogists.
Ancestry.com is now a publicly-traded company and therefore its financial statements are available to anyone with an interest. I invite you, your accountant, and anyone else with an interest to download Ancestry.com's latest financial statements and examine them closely to see if the company is gouging its customers. I don't think you will find any evidence of that.
Thank goodness, Ancestry.com *IS* profitable and does provide a reasonable financial return to its investors. That means the company will probably remain in the business of providing public information to you and to me for a long time yet. All this will be provided at prices far lower than what I used to spend traveling to distant repositories to view the same records. I love the convenience and I am delighted to pay these lower prices instead of paying for gasoline, parking, and the occasional airline ticket! I hope that Ancestry.com and all the other companies in the same business continue to do the same forever.
I do get upset when I read comments of "They should provide the information free of charge." To quote William Safire, speechwriter to one of my least favorite vice-presidents, these people are "nattering nabobs of negativity."
C'mon folks. It is time to grow up and recognize the simple fact that those who spend money making information available to all of us are allowed to recover their expenses plus a reasonable profit. Those who don't like this are free to obtain their information the same way that we have been obtaining it for decades: take a trip. If you don’t care for the new option, simply use the old method that has been in place for decades. If you don't want to pay the online fees, please obtain your information the way we all did it before online access became available. That option is still available to you and probably will continue to be available for many more years.
You are free to choose whatever you want, but please don’t complain about the new, more convenient options that many of us appreciate.
If any vendors decide to drop out of this business because of the chronic complainers, we all will lose.
Are you a "nattering nabob of negativity?"
- Dick Eastman
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