Say you've spent a considerable amount of time, and perhaps some money as well, documenting a set of families. The work has paid off, and one of the rewards is to share it with people who may be living descendants of those documented by your research.

The problem is that once you publish your research on a public web site of your choice, nothing prevents other (well-meaning) people—often your relatives!—from copying your work without attribution and incorporating the metadata and images related to the records you uncovered into their trees.

In some areas of human intellectual endeavor (e.g., academic publishing), this would be considered plagiarism. In other areas Creative Commons or other licensing may be used to allow reuse but to require people to give credit to the authors of the documents or other artifacts (e.g., software source code).

How should genealogists approach this situation? I can imagine several possible tactics, each with its own trade-offs:

  1. Don't publish anything in machine-readable ways. Making it difficult to incorporate information into other people's trees will deter some people; those who are not deterred are much more likely to cite the source. The downside is that fewer people will see the information because it will not be as easy to find, and that re-typing information from it (using it as a source) will be a source of errors.

  2. Publish machine-readable information, but do so with privacy settings that require others to ask for documents. This makes it easier to keep track of who gets the information, and you might be able to ask them to attribute to work appropriately. No guarantees, of course.

  3. Publish machine-readable information publicly, and contact those who use your information after the fact to ask them to give due credit. They are less likely to bother, but it does benefit more people who have access to the evidence you have collected.

  4. Don't care about who does what. After all, as we used to say in an early (and successful) non-genealogical research project I was involved in, "your ideas will be stolen, whether they are yours or not."

I am curious to know which of these, or what other, solutions people have adopted, and if there are ways in which we can change best practices in the field to reward the effort that goes into our research.


Many of the excellent answers below had assumed a more polished form of publication than I had intended to convey in my question. I was referring merely to the accumulation of historical records associated with people in a tree, such as one that might be maintained at Ancestry.com. Clearly the copyright-able aspect of this is not the individual record, but the accumulation of such records to document an individual's (or a family) history. My gut feeling about this is that since it may have taken a considerable effort to put this together, that effort should be recognized. That was the point of my question: how best to protect that intellectual (and modest financial) effort?

  • I publish information about and photos of my ancestors and their relatives to Ancestry.com in the hope that their memory will live on and that those who share my ancestry may be inspired to publish what they have. Also, you may want to add a link to Creative Commons for those not familiar with it.
    – PolyGeo
    Oct 15, 2012 at 8:37

7 Answers 7


Personally, I'd use a combination of your (4) and (3): don't be too uptight about it, and make it as freely copyable as possible -- with a catch.

Publish machine-readable information publicly, and contact those who use your information after the fact to ask them to give due credit.

For the purposes of this discussion, it seems like there are going to be four broad types of copying taking place:

  1. People who will do a wholesale import of your tree into theirs, without thinking about attribution.
  2. People who will retype information from your non-machine-readable tree into theirs, without thinking about attribution.
  3. People who will selectively use information from your published tree with proper attribution.
  4. People who will copy your information in any form, and intentionally remove attribution.

Forget about the fourth case, there's not much you can do here that's worth the effort.

In the third case, you're going to get credit, so that's fine.

The first and second cases are the lazy copiers, and the second case is the one we really care about: since they have to retype (or cut & paste), and they're lazy, you're not going to get credit.

You could largely eliminate the second case by making the work machine-readable -- anyone smart enough to do an import will just suck in your tree. And if you add citations to your own work, then they will import those citations and voilà, you get credit. (Of course, the risk is that they will still publish in a format that does not display source citations.) Automatically adding self-citations to a machine-readable format just prior to publication as a post-processing step should not be difficult (at least in theory!); whether it's worth the effort is a consideration for you, the author.

As @Tom Wetmore mentioned in a comment on another answer, the copiers will often include your notes verbatim. If you simply want to know how much influence your work has had, include lots of notes! (Perhaps initial & date each note, too, for built-in self-citation?)


As responsible and courteous users of published information, we all place a lot of emphasis on not breaching the copyright of others. Sometimes that focus gives us a distorted picture of just what we can hold copyright over in our own work.

I certainly have no claim on any of the information in my records. The facts are in the public domain and I have no right to restrict others using them. The law recognises that I do have rights over the distinctive manner in which I present that information, or I would, if it was in any way distinctive. I did not devise or invent ancestor trees, descendant charts, ahnentafels, fan diagrams or any of the other standard forms we use. Every member of Ancestry is equally capable of presenting the same facts via the same tools to generate the same product. They do not breach my copyright when they do so.

Of course my work is distinguished by its beautifully crafted chain of argument weighing conflicting evidence and scrupulously justifying each knowledge claim. But, guess what, no-one is trying to "steal" that.

When I use my family history work as the basis for story-telling and other forms of writing about my family then I am (I hope) creating something genuinely new that is deserving of protection and it will receive that should I choose to enforce my rights regarding subsequent use.

Early in my writing career I complained that my work deserved protection (from the evil Xeroxers, not downloaders) because of the effort I had put into its production. A grizzled editor replied "No more effort than a ditch digger, son, and he does not even get a copy to take home."

I try not to be too precious about MY work in this field.

  • I agree with you completely that I have no claim to the copyright of the records, images, etc. that I have found in my research. I do, however, feel a sense of ownership of the output of my research, of the work derived from the analysis of many, many records. While sites such as Ancestry.com allow me to assert ownership of the tree, and encourage me to share my findings with others (a good thing!), they do not make it easy to retain the recognition for the work that was done once portions of the work have been incorporated into other people's trees. Oct 15, 2012 at 15:58

I publish (or will publish) all the results of my research online, with exclusions mentioned elsewhere in discussions about privacy. I don't publish material to which other people hold the copyright (e.g. copyrighted images of sources, or oral testimony which I don't have permission to share).

My own copyright statement says:

Except where otherwise noted, I own the copyright on all material on this site — but not (of course) on the underlying facts.

If you want to make use of any of my copyright material, in your own family history research or for another purpose, contact me to ask permission. If you want to make use of the facts in your own research, it would be nice if you let me know. If you do re-publish any of the information here, please acknowledge me with a link to this site — and do check the facts for yourself.

My view is that I want to share the results of my research and it's impossible to stop other people using what I've done. If somebody asks permission to use copyrighted material, I'll almost certainly grant it although nobody has asked yet! And a polite request for acknowledgement may bear fruit.

I take a less relaxed view to copyright violations with one of my other "hats" on, where there are commercial implications, but I'm losing nothing except maybe a little kudos if somebody rips off my family history research. I've already done the work and spent the money for my own satisfaction.

  • I fixed many mistakes in a family history book a decade ago, and made the correct information known in a number of contexts. As years have passed I've seen more and more on-line pedigrees migrating away from the book's versions to my versions. Some use my comments and notes verbatim. I have never received a request to use the information or a thank you for having researched and corrected the information. I know a lot more than I did a decade below, so the worst part of this is seeing the new mistakes I made ten years ago being promulgated into the future. Oct 15, 2012 at 11:24

There are a couple of core issues here. In the research process, you will have typically assimilated information from some source and then used it as evidence for or against a number of conclusions. There are, therefore, a number of separate parts that could be published: the evidence, the citations for the sources, your conclusions derived from the available evidence, and your logic and reasoning in reaching those conclusions.

The commonly-used term 'E&C' relates to the differentiation of Evidence from Conclusion but this over-simplifies the process by ignoring all that reasoning.

I currently publish my conclusions in an online tree, although not my evidence or citations. This is primarily due to the restricted nature of the content provider's software. I would share more if the interface were greatly improved. I would be less inclined to freely share all my reasoning though. Note that my definitive data is not that published online - that is merely a restricted part of it.

The second core issue relates to artefacts (or artifacts in the US) and concerns permissions and prohibitions on their sharing. Copyright is a formal prohibition but there will be many cases of informal permissions/prohibitions requested when these items were shared with yourself, most commonly by a relative. Although there may be no legal impediment to sharing such things, there will be a moral one that could be just as important to you. Things like photos and personal papers will commonly fall into this category.

Our software should support some type of permission/prohibition marker for artefacts that can be used as a reminder to prevent accidental sharing. Note that I'm not suggesting some secure prevention mechanism in that software - not even for cases formalised copyright. Machine-readable copyright details would be too complicated to fully implement correctly, and a simple reminder/marker can be used for all of these cases mentioned here.


I try to take a practical approach: make it as easy as possible for people to give credit where it is due. One way towards this is to provide actual citation text for users to include in their sources (or in the material they cut-and-paste). The citation format will not always be the form they want, but it gets them most of the way there.

An extension of this is to make GEDCOMs available which have the source credits built into them. These would have a source record for your article or website which has the reseach laid out, and would have references to that source record attached to each individual in the GEDCOM file. (It can also have textual references embedded as part of the included notes.) It's true that GEDCOM importers may intentionally or unintentionally strip off the source references, but at least you've made it easy to do the right thing.

(Note: the source references are to your published research, not to the underlying genealogical sources, which are given in your published location. There are utilities available to help easily insert the source references into a GEDCOM.)

  • You make good points about publishing documents base on research. I had intended my question to refer to the collection of historical records associated with people in a tree as one might do on Ancestry.com. I will modify the question to clarify. Oct 15, 2012 at 18:12

"how best to protect that intellectual (and modest financial) effort?"

  1. Protect it from copycat relatives? Hide it.

  2. Protect it from being lost forever? Share it.

  3. Protect it from both? Share it with all your distant relatives, encourage them to share it, and include a request for old pictures or updates on their families. Few will respond, but they will save your contact info.


These comments have been very informative and have confirmed my own feelings. Since 1999 I have been working on my extended family trees, researching, connecting with newly found relatives, going to locations, cemeteries, finding skeletons in the closet and finding cherished pictures that would have been in the trash if I had not found them. This documentation of the lives of my family and all the work has been my passion. My hopes that the next generation will enjoy. Though, I find it disrespectful to see all this information incorporated by others, including relatives, and use it as their own "edition" of the family history, but not crediting or acknowledging the source of the information. I have received information from many distant relatives, and if not noted, I can later forget where it came from, but it is not the norm. As a writer I find it uncouth/unprofessional. It is not a matter of using the information, but of not giving the credit by acknowledgement to the person who did the work. It isn't about a fee, for I would rather give information to others than have them pay for it on genealogy sites that charge. I have had other researchers go out of their way to help me in research, and I appreciate them and give credit to them for their help. Just my rant...,for what it is worth. Thanks

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