Who Actually Owns Your Content When You Post It to the Web?

Over the years, I have heard or read many comments from genealogists about who owns information posted to the World Wide Web. In fact, many people are reluctant to post their family trees online because “someone might steal the information.” A short article published in the Gizmodo.com Web site uses non-lawyer English to explain several of the issues concerning legal “ownership” of information posted online.

If you have concerns about ownership of online information, you might want to read Who Actually Owns Your Content When You Post It to the Web by David Nield at http://bit.ly/2ypjoQU.

I will offer one thought to keep in mind: names of people, along with dates and places of birth, marriage, death, military service, and similar facts of interest to genealogists are just that: facts. As stated in the article by David Nield, “You can’t copyright facts, or ideas, or systems…” While you might be in possession of certain facts about your ancestors, that doesn’t mean that you OWN the information. No one person “owns” facts within the U.S., according to copyright law.


I agree that facts are not copyright, however genealogical research is about a lot more than the acquisition of facts. Anyone with deep enough pockets can purchase endless BMD certificates containing bare facts, but that doesn’t constitute genealogical research in itself. What turns those bare facts into a family tree requires investigating those facts, researching for corroborative information, interpreting the facts and then assembling them into pedigrees that tell the story of a family over the centuaries. That is where dedication, individual effort and skill is required over a period of many years. Non-fiction books are full of facts and they are created in the same way; the big difference is that they are published with the legal protection of copyright for many decades.


First let me say I understand the “can’t copyright facts” and am not concerned with “or ideas, or systems” as they don’t pertain to “Public Trees” on genealogy sites.
Now for the words in the article that I think people most feel at issue with regarding their trees is “FAIR USE” – and therefore the question to be answered is “does the material you are copying relate to your family line or are you copying material that you will never follow up on or add to or correct but just keep re-posting after the original “poster” has updated or corrected it?” This, unfortunately, was the lesson I learned and now no matter where I look I find my OLD work coming back at me and especially with the “record & smart matching” being done by the genealogy sites the “others” posted it to. Need I say more?
My advice to people is to share wisely, to copy wisely, to post wisely and to know your file and the lines you work are your direct ancestry (and cousins too) but unless you are related to your great uncles wife’s mother’s family – leave them for her descendants to research.
Rant over, thanks for listening.


I think we’ve all seen our online information “stolen” and sometimes carelessly grafted into families that have no connection to our own. Misuse of data we’ve carefully collected and evaluated is annoying, but if we wanted to keep this information to ourselves we wouldn’t have put it online. Genealogy is about sharing, and the careful researchers who have contacted me have more than made up for those who misused or abused data I posted in public forums.


I have been building my family tree on Ancestry and on My Heritage while being aware that the information and family photos that I post will be used by others who are pursuing the same individuals. I actually, if asked, would encourage others to use the information and photos that I post in hopes that they might add to and correct any errors that I may make. I don’t work on the assumption that facts, photos and other information are my property. If others use that work and profit from it in some way, it’s OK since I have no expectation of profiting from the work that I do. I do it because I enjoy learning and revealing what I learn to my family members and to anyone else who benefits from my work. I work with the idea that if you don’t want to share what you know, don’t post it on any website.

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I will not put my records on any web site but will and have shared with select individual distant relatives. I left, many years ago, my paternal line with a genealogy society. Theirs’ was information
that only I had. This information was given too me by my grandfather who was born in 1869 and died in 1972. This information appeared on a couple web sites and when I talked to the individual who put it on she bragged that she had over 100,000 individuals in her data base. A son was added that if you analyze the facts you easily see he could not be a son. Also, my 2 X paternal great grandfather was noted as being born in two different areas of South Carolina. Exactly where he was born is still unknown to me after 50 years research. Over the last five years I have constructed a potential set of siblings for him but I will not put out for general usage because I am sure someone would put it out as fact


I agree wholeheartedly that we must be careful what we put online or what we share with other individuals believing it will not be put online. Case in point, I shared with a relative some family information and pictures on the condition that they not post the information online. These are not facts that they can get anywhere else. A couple of months later I found all the information that I had shared with this relative posted online including information on my living Father which should never have been put there. For this very reason I am extremely careful, if and when I share information. So many people are just trying to fill up a family tree that They’re copying and pasting from other people and not verifying the facts and there’s so much data out there that is very incorrect. It makes genealogy research harder for the rest of us.


    I had a similar experience in that I made contact with a distant relative, and I mentioned that an elderly great aunt and uncle were still alive. The distant relative then published the details on her public tree, along with where they were living! I got back in touch and asked her to remove their details as they were still alive and vulnerable – her response – “Why what have they got to hide?” You may not be able to copyright information but you should still be careful with the information, and who it relates to. Data protection and privacy laws are there for a reason.


I never thought about who owned the right to content on the web. It’s poetic that you mentioned you can’t own facts. Facts can’t be owned and that makes me feel reassured in this changing world. A lot of people have shown desire to remove their background online. No one can steal the facts or the truth, at least in the U.S.


One of my family trees on Ancestry is public, the one linked to my DNA. I don’t mind anyone using my facts since they are well sourced and better than a lot of the information out here. I don’t like people using my pictures without my permission but I can’t figure out a way to protect these without making my tree private, When I see that someone has used one of my pictures, I reach out that person with a friendly greeting and ask how we are related. When I want to use a picture from someone else’s tree I also reach out to that person, introduce myself and ask if they would mind if I copied that picture.
Genealogists have to be more cognizant of common courtesy, which unfortunately is not as common as it should be.

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Good article, thanks. My concern has been with the many photographs I posted on Ancestry. As I understand it, Ancestry says the photos now belong to them. These are copies of photos that are in albums and boxes at my house. I am pleased to share them, and see them posted on trees on MyHeritage and WikiTrees because that means cousins are sharing them too. These aren’t my relatives, they re our relatives. However, I don’t post photos that I have acquired from sources I don’t own such as newspapers, family histories and the like. I include those as references but hesitate to “give” them to Ancestry.


    —> As I understand it, Ancestry says the photos now belong to them.

    No. Never.

    Ancestry says that you gave them a LICENSE to publish the photos. In other words, you gave them PERMISSION. Without obtaining permission from you, Ancestry could not legally publish the photos online for you.

    That is not the same thing as ownership. You, or the original photographer, remain as the owner.


What is the old saying? “We all have seven levels of separation…” I contend, *Everyone* is entitled to learn their of their roots!

I have been at this for over 40 years in both private and professional capacities. I began posting my lines to the internet in the 90s. For me it is the attitude of *ownership* that suggests what we have researched is somehow a “commodity” that we have to get over!

I, too, have spent hundreds of hours in various repositories researching my own lines, but I do it “for the love of the hunt,” not expecting to pretend I do not have relatives who have just as much “ownership” in the truth of who we are as a people!

In sharing, I have taken my lines waaay back in ways I never thought possible. DNA gave me the opportunity to prove my family origins genetically, in cases where the paper trail cannot be followed! That gives me research goals and directions for my remaining brick walls!

I have met “cousins” who still live at the old places and who have been kind enough to show me the cemeteries of our ancestors! I have also brought skeletons out of the closet that needed to be released so we can all remember that, at the heart of it all, we are humans who try to do the best we can as we are best equipped, and ALL of us screw up along the way!

Sharing and collaborating is the way to go!

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I shared in my private family fb group a link to a website that was a link posted on a relative’s blog. The website had posted the entire blog and named the author at the end. My relative commented that the website was still stealing her writing. I responded that the website i shared was from a link within my cousin’s own blog and that the second party clearly named my relative as the author. My relative was insistent that the second party was stealing my relative’s cultural copyrighted material. How can that be true, when my relative clearly posted the link to the “offending” website within her own article?


I have shared under the assumption that once I put it “out there”, it will be copied and used by anyone, both wisely and unwisely. So I am very careful about what I share. Careful researchers who wish for more will be given it once they contact me and prove that they are both worthy, and trustworthy.

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