Warning: This article contains personal opinions.
This is an almost exact duplicate of an article I posted several years ago. The topic has come up again lately so I decided to publish it again for the benefit of those who did not read or do not remember the original article. I have changed a few words to make sure it covers recent comments.
I have a complaint that may upset some people, including some who read this newsletter. I will probably lose 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.
In short, every time I post an article or someone’s press release about some new genealogy data becoming available on a fee-based web site, a great hue and cry arises from the nay-sayers. The comments they post on this newsletter’s web site and elsewhere vary in wording but have a common theme: “The information is public and should remain free to all of us and not be the private property of some company.”
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 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.
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 original information is available, be it in Washington, D.C. or 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 it 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 the original documents at no charge in the old-fashioned way by visiting the archive where each document is stored, we now have additional avenues – specifically, online. Companies that seek out this free information and then invest a few hundred thousand 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. Your choice.
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. Nobody seems to question these “fees charged for convenient access.” The same is true with public domain documents: the information remains free, but we expect to pay a fee for the expensive “pipes” that deliver that information conveniently to our homes without requiring us to travel.
For me and for most other Americans, it is cheaper to pay for online access (Ancestry.com, MyHeritage.com, Findmypast.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. 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? How about the hotels and restaurants needed when traveling?)
I am appalled that some people apparently expect a company to spend money 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 they learn economics? At the Tooth Fairy University?
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 get their information the same way that genealogists have been obtaining it for decades. If you don’t care for the new option, simply use the old method that has been in place for decades. You are free to choose the method you prefer, but please don’t complain about new, more convenient options that some 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