29 August 2007

Cache and Charge: The Ancestry dilemma

When I first learned about the caching of free genealogical material in a for-fee Ancestry database from Janice of Cow Hampshire, I searched the new Internet Biographical Collection.

Included were many JewishGen pages and InfoFiles, special interest groups hosted by JewishGen, family associations, Yizkor (memorial) book translations, photographs and more. The pages were clearly marked Copyright, All Rights Reserved, No Commercial Use Permitted and variants of notifications. One cached page even referred to the more than 100 other pages on that site, each with its own copyrights and permissions. Family site guestbooks were cached, with messages including rather personal information, including addresses, phone numbers and other data that people would not have posted if they knew it would be available this way.

As genea-bloggers posted comments, Ancestry made changes to the collection - it was available, not available, changed to a free database and then removed completely.

This is an ethical dilemma on Ancestry's part. I'm not commenting on the legalities or the technical side, better addressed by others (see links below).

Ancestry obviously did not anticipate the uproar concerning its initial decision to place free copyrighted online material on a for-fee subscription site.

Why not?

Did this plan - from conception to posting - make its way through multiple corporate levels without a single person in the chain of command commenting, "Wait a minute, this is copyrighted free online material and now we're going to do what with it?" or suggesting "Perhaps we should contact the copyright holders of these pages for permission to use their material in this way?"

Although the database has been removed - for the time being - Ancestry needs to ask itself: "Just because we can do something, should we do it?"

I believe we would not have been as upset if only the URL and a limited description of the link were included. We're certainly used to seeing links on Google or Yahoo, and we're delighted when the public finds our sites.

The problem was the caching of free pages and their clearly copyrighted contents on a for-fee subscription database - with no indication of whether Ancestry had asked for and received permission from the copyright holders for this commercial use.

Suzanne Russo Adams, Ancestry Professional Desk head, referred me to Internet Biographical Collection Removed from Ancestry at Ancestry's 24/7 Family History Circle Blog, which reads in part:

...Many people have expressed concerns about the collection and the search engine we created on Ancestry.com. We recognize the significant time and resources members of the genealogical community invest to make their family history research available online.

Over the past few days we have reevaluated this collection’s goals, caching and crawling ability, and user experience. We have decided to remove this collection and search engine from Ancestry.com for the time being. We are still dedicated to providing family historians the online tools and aggregated records that make it easier to trace their family tree and will work to develop a solution that meets those needs in a way that will be most beneficial to our customers and the community.

Should the qualifier used - "for the time being" - make us nervous? Today the issue is moot, but what about tomorrow? The genealogy blogging community's far-ranging discussion is enlightening:

Cow Hampshire - Janice's initial post is here; her follow-up post is here. Leland Meitzler's Genealogy Blog - The Generations Network Continues to Tarnish Their Image - seems to have the most complete list of blogger comments including CreativeGene, EOGN, Dear Myrtle, Genealogy.about.com, The Genealogue, Genea-Musings, GeneaBlogie, and Family Oral History Using Digital Tools.


  1. Well done Schelly. I share your concern about the "for the time being" part. Let's hope Ancestry learned a lesson from this and doesn't mess with cached pages of our content ever again.

  2. You are so right, Schelly. Just because Ancestry has the technology doesn't mean it should use it.

  3. Good thoughts, Schelly. You have to wonder what The Generations Network
    thinks about the concept of consultation with the genealogy community. Apparently not much. Even if legal (an issue I'll be exploring next week), Ancestry's actions represent a breach of trust with the rest of the community.

  4. Hi, Jasia, Myrt and Craig,

    Thank you for your comments. We'll have to wait and see what "for the time being" really means.

    Craig, good comment on the concept of consultation with the genealogy community.


  5. Schelly,

    I hope you don't mind that I added your link an article on my blog about this issue.

    I'm glad Ancestry.com has at least temporarily disabled the database. I hope they make it permanent.

    I like you am amazed that the database moved through all the channels of design and approval without someone saying, "um wait, can we do this? um wait, SHOULD we do it? um wait, would anyone object?"

    One of the responses I read this morning said that if one of us found data in Ancestry.com's free section, copied or cached it, and then offered it for sale (heck or even for free) their corporate attorneys would be on us like a tic on a dog. So what is the difference between this scenario and what they did? Nothing that I can discern.


  6. No problem with adding the link, Janice! Thank you.

    This event demonstrated that we'll need to remain vigilant. It also showed that genea-bloggers - as a group - can certainly be a catalyst for change.