Who Actually Owns the Family Tree You Have Online?

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.

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Imagine adding your family tree to a simple website and getting hundreds of new family history discoveries instantly.

MyHeritage is offering 2 free weeks of access to their extensive collection of 18 billion historical records, as well as their matching technology that instantly connects you with new information about your ancestors. Sign up using the link below to find out what you can uncover about your family.

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.

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.

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.

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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

35 thoughts on “Who Actually Owns the Family Tree You Have Online?”

  1. Ancestry just changed their TOS. (8-1-2021) If you had a date on this article and highlight the fact that companies can and do change their policies and you should always check the latest. An undated article that gives people the impression that you are talking about the current policy isn’t doing anyone any favors. That said, thanks for alerting people to the issue. It’s just sad many will be stung by this latest theft of private data and images just so they can make more money selling your data and images to others. Most people aren’t savvy enough to understand the pages of legalese in these TOS and privacy policies so an interpretation would be helpful. By the time word gets out the 30 days to remove will have long past!

  2. Absolutely correct! It really is a REQUIREMENT to make this useful at all IMO. If you are reading this today you are getting outdated information. Ancestry has changed it’s terms of service again (8-1-2021) and SURPRISE! they will now claim unrestricted use and ownership all of your data and images (private trees or not) if you continue to have them in your tree. You only have 30 days to remove them.

  3. Is there anywhere I can save my tree so it is private? I have it on a well known site but nothing is private, not even if I mark it as ‘Keep Private’. I regularly get emails from another website telling me of Smartmatches, and they show me this other persons information on those matches. I have seen that people I do not know have taken my photos and claimed them as their own, and they even have ALL the information on living people, including myself, that I had marked as private. It seems that if I have a private tree on one website, every other website has access to it and shares it.
    I did the legwork long before the internet. and I want to keep it for my family alone. But I need it safe. Can anyone help?

  4. Michelle,
    I would love to speak to you privately more about this, but I do not know how to contact you privately.
    All the Best,

  5. How awful. Five people have copied my trees and took all my photos with it. I contacted them and only one responded. She was very rude and will not remove the data. This person is not related to me even remotely. This is very frustrating.

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