Who Actually Owns the Family Tree You Have Online

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.

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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.

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

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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…)

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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!

  11. 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.”

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

  13. 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.

  14. 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


    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.

  15. 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.

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