Who Actually Owns the Family Tree You Have Online?

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Who Actually Owns the Family Tree You Have Online?


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Do you host your family tree online? Have you backed up your genealogy files to the cloud? If you said yes to either question, you are certainly not alone. Many family historians today choose to store their trees on the web. And there are many benefits to doing so — easy setup, access from anywhere, simple sharing and an assurance that you’ll still have your tree if your computer or tablet were to crash.

But is it really a good idea to place your genealogy data online? Do you know who owns, or has access to, your family’s information once you upload it? Do you know how it will be used in the future?

The truth is, the answer is not a simple one. Anytime we choose to upload information to a website we are placing our trust in an entity that we do not have control over. We do not have control over how that information will be protected, used or shared. This is the case for everything from posts on a forum or social media site, to online banking information and, yes, our family trees.

We assume, or at least hope, that the sites we trust with our information are taking proper precautions to protect our data. We hope they won’t share it without our permission or use it improperly. But few of us take the time to read the fine print when we sign up for a website and, even when we do, the legalese can be confusing at best.

Years ago, I chose to backup my GEDCOMs and related data with a fairly popular online service dedicated to that purpose. I let the service automatically save and upload my files as they were updated. It was very convenient and my account was 100% private, only for my use…or so I thought.

One day I was doing some research online and came across my own tree. My private research online. I was shocked. I had not, at that time, publicly uploaded my tree to any online sharing site, yet there it was, with all of my personally collected records, notes and more.

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How had this happened?

After doing some considerable digging I discovered that the backup service I was using was bought out by a large genealogy company and they had taken all of my files and published them online in their databases…and they were charging for the information. I was horrified. Not only had I put countless hours of research into private trees that were now available for anyone to access without my permission, but I knew much of the information I had in my trees was not 100% accurate. Since these trees were works in progress they were never intended to be shared in that way. I knew which names, dates and details still needed further research — others would not.

I did eventually find a way to have this information removed, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson. You can never fully trust any company with your information. Ever.

I do take some responsibility for this breach of privacy. I assume that somewhere, hidden in some fine print, this company must have informed me that they could use my information this way or, perhaps, somewhere it stated that if they sold their business the privacy rules would change. I also have to take responsibility for the fact that I made the decision to trust this company. They provided a service I wanted and I was happy to use it. Whether I inadvertently signed an agreement that released my data or not, it was ultimately my responsibility to find that out before I uploaded my content.

But I still felt violated. I felt that the company should have clearly informed me that my tree would be used in this way. And they never did that.

And this is just my personal story. I have heard many similar stories from others who were using other online services. Sometimes the issue came from a user’s lack of understanding of the company’s policies, other times the breaches were just underhanded or stemmed from misleading or confusing terms and conditions.

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Do these problems make me want to stop using online genealogy services? No. They do, however, remind me to be a lot more cautious. The experience I faced taught me that I need to inform myself carefully before uploading my data to any site and that I must hold those sites responsible for any breaches in the promises they make.

And that leads us back to your online family history information, and how much of it you maintain ownership and control over when you choose to place it online.

The answer is not that simple. Consider these questions:

  • Where are you storing your tree or online information? Do you know the name of the company that owns that website?
  • Is the company known for being trustable and accountable? Have they proven this in the past?
  • Have you read the terms and conditions of the site? Do they make sense to you? Do they state that you maintain ownership over your own data and clearly state how the site can or will use that data?
  • Does the company give you easy control over your tree and files? Can you edit, protect or remove them at any time?
  • Do they provide good customer service that will help you if there is a breach to your account, or if you do not understand the terms of their site?
  • How easy is it to completely remove the data from this source if you decide you want or need to in the future? Do they keep a backup for their own use? Will they delete that too?
  • What are the company’s policies regarding ownership and privacy if they should be bought my another company?
  • What kind of data are you uploading? How much of it do you feel like you own?
  • How much of your data do you have the right to share?
  • How much of it would you feel comfortable sharing with the public if it were to be released?

This is a lot of questions, but it is imperative that we ask them every time we choose to share our family history data online. We live in an online world, and that world grows every day. If we are going to use online services we must be willing to learn about them and take actions to improve them when necessary.

Luckily, I see genealogists doing this all of the time.

Some people, however, will argue that we do not really own our genealogy data and therefore we should always be willing to share it and not concern ourselves with privacy. They will argue that our genealogy data stemmed from public information and should stay that way.

There is some truth to that, of course. Most of the records we use on our research are not our own. Many are in the public domain and/or are accessible to others through various methods. We also do not own the name, dates and details of our ancestors’ lives.

But we do own the countless hours of research we put into building our trees, digging up details, finding and documenting sources, verifying information, scanning and transcribing records. The information may not be our own, but the work is.

We may also have information in our tree that is not in the public domain or is sensitive for other reasons. This may include family photos or stories, or information about living individuals. It is our job to protect this information, or to share it appropriately only at our own discretion. We need to know that this information is secure when we place it online.

Does this mean we should never upload our family history data? Does it mean we should not share what we have collected with others? Absolutely not. Sharing is a very important part of genealogy research and we should continue to do it.

But, for the above reasons, we must be cautious and responsible when choosing where and how to share and store our data. We must take the time to inform ourselves about the sites we choose to use and be willing to ask if we do not understand a policy or require clarification. We need to hold companies accountable for the information they offer to store.

You might be asking yourself at this stage — how secure is my family tree? Could it be shared without my permission?

We suggest you take the time to understand the policies of the site or sites that host your tree or other data. Read their terms and conditions and privacy policies carefully (usually you can find a link to these in the footer of a site) and email the company with any questions you may have. Don’t assume your data is protected just because it has seemed secure in the past or because other people feel safe.

Many sites that host online family trees have fairly detailed online terms that cover a wide variety of content usage rights. And, generally, these terms also give the site more control and ownership over your data than you may realize. That doesn’t mean the site is out to trick you or do any harm, but they are out to protect themselves and handling (potentially sensitive) online data requires that they go out of their way to do that.

Ancestry.com, for instance, states in its online terms and conditions:

By submitting User Provided Content on any of the Websites, you grant Ancestry and its Group Companies a perpetual, transferable, sublicenseable, worldwide, royalty-free, license to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to create derivative works of, and otherwise use User Provided Content submitted by you to the Websites, to the extent and in the form or context we deem appropriate on or through any media or medium and with any technology or devices now known or hereafter developed or discovered. You hereby release Ancestry and its Group Companies from any and all claims, liens, demands, actions or suits in connection with the User Provided Content you submit, including, without limitation, any and all liability for any use or nonuse of your User Provided Content, claims for defamation, invasion of privacy, right of publicity, emotional distress or economic loss. This license continues even if you stop using the Websites or the Services. Ancestry may scan, image and/or create an index from the User Provided Content you submit. In this situation, you grant Ancestry a license to the User Provided Content as described above and Ancestry will own the digital version of documents created by Ancestry as well as any indexed information that Ancestry creates. 

Does that mean that Ancestry owns your family tree if you host one there? It sure sounds like it but, according to them, the answer is no. They go on to state:

Except for the rights granted in this Agreement, Ancestry acquires no title or ownership rights in or to any User Provided Content you submit and nothing in this Agreement conveys any ownership rights in such User Provided Content on the Websites. 

Confusing? Yes. They also have a separate Privacy Policy that they recently updated that includes even more information to ponder.

Ancestry is not alone in this. The terminology they use is pretty standard for any website that stores data and other online genealogy sites that host trees, like FamilySearch and MyHeritage, have similar terms.

So what does it all mean? What should you do to protect your data?

In short…be informed.

1. Recognize that placing data online always carries some risk, whether from the hosting company or via unauthorized access by those with malicious intent. As stated above, make sure you know what site you are dealing with and how they protect data. Look at their record of trust and transparency, read their terms and conditions and ask questions when needed. Also ask others what their experiences have been with the company. The more that users look at, and question, how their data is being used, the more likely it is that companies will be truly responsible for the data they host and wholly accountable for their policies and actions.

2. You also, usually, have some control over how you manage the privacy of your online tree, and the terms and conditions that cover your data may change based on how you choose to set those privacy controls. Understand the settings available to you and use them in a way that you feel comfortable with.

3. Be smart about what you share. Personal information (or photos) of/about living individuals requires extra caution. If you plan to place this information online, even privately, make sure you have gained the proper permission to do so.

4. Question your own comfort level. Are you OK with a company copying your information and storing it? Are you OK with the fact that this information may be stored by them even if you delete it from your account? Are you comfortable with a family history company selling your public data to others as part of its paid packages?

Ask yourself these questions and then proceed however you feel comfortable. This article is not designed to scare you away from online backups or sharing. They are both important parts of genealogy research and we can’t hide from them. We must use them and improve them — and ultimately, we must be willing to take some risk.

But, it is also important to inform yourself and hold the companies you trust responsible for their actions. This will help ensure a safer, stronger family history network that we can all take part in with confidence now and in the future.

By: Melanie Mayo | Editor, Family History Daily

Image: Helen S. Bru, clerk in the State Department’s Appointment Section, affixes the great seal of the United States to about 1200 documents per year. 1938. Library of Congress

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25 Comments
Leave a response
  • Ron Wood
    March 26, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    Ii too have had experiences with online info being used. My problem came when our family tree was uploaded to a private server, with access given to those who are connected into my tree, yet in a purchased CD set, there was my info including photos I had edited via photoshop to add names on said photos. I found out later that this well known software company was using a search algorithm to gather genealogy information to bundle in their CDS, for monetary gain. I have no problems sharing info my family and I have gathered, but to steal info from a private server, to make a buck… is just wrong.

  • Leona
    December 25, 2016 at 2:02 pm

    Wonderful article, thanks so much for writing it. Found it as I am looking for a truly private family history site, without having to gain all the knowledge in order to make one myself.

  • SM
    August 15, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    Thanks Melanie for this great article and all the discussion it’s generated. I have been very cautious with on-line information but I have given a great deal of information via hard copy to various extended family members. Many have then placed this information on-line. Like many of your responders that information has been misused, added to and full of inaccuracies. It does irritated me somewhat but I was rather amused to find I have a ‘new’ mother and ‘new’ siblings. Such is the modern world!

  • August 8, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    I have had and still having a whole different set of problems.

    I’ve been researching my paternal family history for almost 45 years. Began the hard way in the days before the Internet and later researched online using public records sites, contributions by family members and other official sources to expand my family tree. I have placed countless, countless hours into this project.

    In 1999 I created a family history website. This website is purely a family history site, I have never and do not publish family trees on there, only the ancestral history and family photos with consent and the personal information I give out on the site is extremely limited. Family members can request their family trees from me by email and I only send their direct ancestries, not those of collateral relatives. So over the years family members contribute to me because I am trusted and credible.

    12 years ago the husband of a distant cousin contacted me saying he has also been researching the same family tree and has his own website and would I like to exchange information with him? When I viewed his website he had details of all the family including my family and I with details of everything, including how many times I’ve been married and divorced, my wife’s and children’s details including our places and exact dates of births. It took a 5 year battle with this guy supported by other family members to persuade him to remove the data. Then he passed the data onto a friend in Australia via gedcom files and then this friend published all the same data on his website. When I requested he remove it having to do so many times he eventually responded by saying he hopes I get killed in a car crash. Then I contacted his website host in Australia dozens of times but they ignored me. The information is still up there.

    Then the Australian guy past the information onto another friend in America and again it was published on another site. Had a 2 year battle getting that off. Later I began to discover photos from my website that do not belong to me but have been contributed to my site by other family members appearing on Pinterest by persons unknown to me. Stolen from my site and added to pinterest without my knowledge. Again another battle to have those taken down and then I installed no right click, no left click and other features on my site and also printed copyright notices on all my site’s photos. I’ve also had running battles with myheritage.com and ancestry.com. myheritage.com actually told me I would have to pay subscribe to have my data removed from whoever uploaded it on there. But I won out in the end after giving them back reviews on forums.

    Last night I discovered details of my beloved paternal Aunt stating that she had 4 husbands with names and dates (misinformation) names of all her living children, grandchildren and great grandchildren including all their spouses on a so-called genealogical site, the guy being of no relation to me or my family. I have had dealings with this character several times in the past requesting for him to remove the details of my family and I from his site. He admits to receiving a gedcom file from the guy in America who uploaded my family information online before. This time I requested he delete the information about my Aunt and her family, his response being that only my aunt’s family listed on his site can request for the data to be removed. Meaning each of the whole 19 living individuals connected with my Aunt on his site, which means someone sends him the data, this guy publishes it on his website without consent or verifying it’s accuracy and then he considers it is the burden of those listed to request having it removed. It’s absolutely outrageous and I’m really bored and tired of it.

    The problem is that copyright laws are very complex regarding genealogy as to what represents being under copyright including varying from country to country and what is interpreted as being private data and even if proven as stolen copyrighted intellectual property or breach of privacy, what can the victims do about it? Especially when the perpetrators and their website hosts either ignore you or respond with an up yours, what are you going to do about it?

  • Alice Boni
    April 2, 2016 at 9:13 pm

    Hello Melanie, Thank you for a grAeat article. I have information on Ancestry.com and when they changed the format they messed things up with the information. I still haven’t got it straightened out. Can other people change the information on your tree? Also if i may ask, What is a GEDCOM?

    • Shirley McDougall
      March 21, 2017 at 1:10 am

      Interesting to find someone else out there has had the same problems as I have had with Ancestry. My entire tree and information has been messed and I initially was so very angry, but then gradually just became disheartened as I talked to them which was useless and they did not care. My information remains completely messed and I do not know how to fix it short of starting my tree all over again which is just too daunting!! All that work over many years is now just messed and sitting stagnating.

  • Gayle Lechner
    April 2, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Several months ago I decided to create another tree on Family Search in the hopes of generating information (“hits”). Although I use the site daily for research, I don’t spend much time updating this particular tree. Until one day…and I got a terrible shock when I saw erroneous data added by people I didn’t know! I became incensed when I saw pictures that had been uploaded from my ancestry.com tree pasted onto this tree, without my permission, and again, by people I didn’t know who didn’t credit my name. Shock #2 came when I tried to delete the erroneous entries – I couldn’t! I thought, what unmitigated gall of people to think they could doctor anyone’s tree! I called Family Search and was connected with a nice, very patient couple who told me that, no, I couldn’t delete bad entries; the only way to fix them was to enter the correct(ed) information and then answer a series of questions about why my information is correct and theirs is not. I would have to do this for each wrong entry, for each person. Shock #3: I can’t delete the whole tree! It’s stuck there forever! Gag! I’ve abandoned it altogether, completely disgusted.

    • Steven Miller
      April 9, 2016 at 4:26 pm

      THANK YOU VERY MUCH for your comment. I have FTM 2014 so I have the bulk of my tree on ancestry’s website, but since they have decided to no longer sell that software and are only offering customer support for FTM 2014 through the end of this year, I have been looking for a new software program and a new website to host my tree. We’ve ALL seen the uproar on Facebook over all this and it’s left me a bit unsettled. I still am not sure if, when or what changes I will be making. Sharing your own experiences has given me a lot to think about. TYVM4S!

  • March 30, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Thanks for this, Melanie. When I created my first genealogy website back in 1998, I was eager to share everything, including pictures. Then I got busy and couldn’t update. Now I’m glad I didn’t have time to put everything online, just the skeleton. Too many people snatch and grab and call it their own. They don’t even know if it is correct; they just use it.

    I’ve spent years at the archives, visiting cemeteries, copying records and speaking with family members. It’s enjoyable work, and I appreciate the fullness of my tree. Those who snatch and grab cannot know that feeling. It’s all about numbers and names to them. But to me, genealogy is all about the experience of finding, not just having.

    Thankfully, I’ve never uploaded my tree to any organisation. It’s all been on my own websites where I control what stays and what goes.

    Now I have it in print only, and am compiling it in book form for family members. I’ll probably drop copies off at the library and historical societies too. My intentions are not to hoard it, but to have somewhat control over it.

  • Sharon Woodard
    March 22, 2016 at 9:02 am

    I have (like many families) have been researching my family history. I now find photos I’ve taken of my mom and husband on other (not immed family) sites. No credit given to photographers in any photos or just “unknown”. Instead, they take credit for all uploads. What can be done? I never take credit for others photos. I would willing give ok if asked (yes…they do know it’s me…)

  • BMusikar
    March 21, 2016 at 6:45 pm

    I made the mistake of using back up your tree and not reading the terms of service. I started to find references to my trees which I have worked on for nearly 20 years. What I am most upset about is that if I made any errors other people will copy them. My first cousin once removed found my tree on a newer website. i did not complete my ancestry tree so I do not have too much to worry about, but I find other peoples trees to be full very serious errors. Many of the people who post on ancestry haven’t any idea how to do genealogy.

  • MarciB
    March 20, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    I have a slightly different perspective. I do not own “my” tree. It is also the tree of all the cousins with whom I share an ancestor or three. I have received such good karma from sharing my data that I have decided the hours of work are a gift to those cousins, many of whom have shared so much with me. I keep living persons private and my own data private, but dead people have so many records available, who would I be kidding?

    • Lupii
      March 27, 2016 at 5:15 am

      Harsh comment, no doubt you have never used any part of anyone’s else’s information to add to your work……..I also loathe people that covet their family history like it is the Holy Grail, by all means lock it up in your private box so when you die no one will know your history…how Ironic.

  • Robert
    March 20, 2016 at 10:31 am

    Back in the olden days people published paper books listing all of there ancestors and all of their souces. The Internet is merely an easier way to share. Please read my about my family and see if we are cousins. Share, share, share.

  • BB
    March 20, 2016 at 9:29 am

    I just moved the GEDCOMs for several trees to Roots Magic to get away from one of those ‘buyouts’ of “A”.com, where the new owner(s) were changing things and discontinuing things right and left. Did not like it any more. Deleted my trees once transferred and also got the raw data for my DNA and also deleted THAT. Hopefully they are respecting my wishes and NOT replacing the info via their back-up system. I got sick and tired of paying about $300 a year to do research when so much of it is free nowadays, besides the changes the new owners were making. I deleted my trees to keep them from being used for profit (if indeed this action was respected and done). The DNA, while it gave me general indications of my geographical heritage, has been otherwise just frustrating. Too many emails asking me ‘here is my DNA profile – now where are we related?’ as if it is MY job to figure that out FOR them. So now, I am researching how to proceed from where I am now, and will embark on a genealogy ‘do-over’ starting later this year when I have some freed-up time. Appreciate the knowledge I am learning from this blog ~ thank you!

  • Annette Altgelt
    March 19, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    What a relief to see this discussion. My first online genealogy effort began last summer, learning from familysearch.org. A few months later, a distant cousin chided me: create a *private* tree, she emphasized. This set of discussions is making me aware of “why.”

  • BethC
    March 19, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Family History Daily. Who are you? Your about page and contact page are sparse with info. I agree with Jake. Who are YOU?

  • Jake
    March 19, 2016 at 11:48 am

    An “About” page would be helpful so we know who YOU are!

  • Carol
    March 19, 2016 at 6:03 am

    Great information to think about! Thank you!

  • chekwriter
    March 18, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    Today, that is the problem with sharing our data and research on our family. Along with DNA results as well. NOw being contested by two or three companies on Facebook.
    Have had the same xxperience, save I did not upload any of my sources or notes. My PAF software allowed me to choose

    what I wanted to share. I checked off those boxes, to keep the notes and sources and references being compiled in the

    gedcom.

    Now today, I mostly do NOT make a GEDCOM any more.
    1. I am NOT all that sure of my findings. Letters from others/related/researchers, are no longer with us, and I have since lost through moving and “‘helpful relatives cleaning”, have possession of the hard copies.
    2. I do NOT want to be called a spammer.
    3. My research has been for many years, and most sources, references are NO LONGER there. CLosed for one reason or another.
    4. If any one is really interested in any of the names appearing on my file, they can do the same leg work themselves.

    5. Verify. Verify, Verify.

    Always your own research.

    I totally empathize with any one in same circumstance today.

  • Hilltownroots
    March 18, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    So why not disclose the on-line backup service that published your research? This might alert others still using that service of this violation of trust so that they can take remedial action.

    • March 18, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      Hello Hilltownroots,

      Thanks for reading. The point of the article was not to focus on any one company or damage anyone’s reputation, which is why I did not name the company I used. Furthermore, this happened several years ago during a buy out transition, so that specific information would not be terribly relevant today or helpful to other family historians. However, the experience is a good example of why we should carefully examine the policies of any websites we use and trust our data with.

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