Thursday, July 17, 2014

STOP THIEF Part 2 - Trying to become a genealogy pirate

Shamus, whose father was a tree, from Family Guy. (courtesy of the Family Guy art archives)

With apologies to Shamus, above, most of us don't think about piracy and theft much when we're doing genealogy. In fact, I hadn't even thought it possible to be a pirate or a thief when doing genealogy unless I like, you know, stole something from an archives or something.

But little did I know that when I joined large Facebook genealogy groups such as RAOGK that the word thief, stole, and took would be some of the most common words used on the site, mostly in relation to Ancestry.com and Find-a-Grave. This presented a problem for me, because I hadn't really thought about the site in that way, but then I realized they were talking about using items without permission, regardless of copyright and attribution, so its kinda like piracy, just in the nicer guise.

And I do understand the trouble with Ancestry. There are SO many layers of complication to the story with the member trees there. Bugs. Free vs. paid accounts. No attributions. Beginners vs. experienced genealogists. Group ownership of other websites, like Find-a-Grave. Those accursed shaky leaves, aka "hints".

So what I decided to do was to try and make a tree and just take everything I could find. So I did. I learned about the Pollock family, in an attempt to figure out why Jay Pollock was buried on the same stone as my Webber family with no apparent connection. [Side note: I did eventually figure this out with the help of the tree and the wonderful volunteers at Ravelry]

I added every document, every photo, every connection. I downloaded every census, and put it into the tree without a care in the world. And then I waited. Expecting that there would be angry cries, accusations of thievery and calls to burn the heathen!


Like this scene from Frankenstein (1931). Because, you know, all good angry mob scenes are in black and white, at night, and consist of walking halfway around town first.


But nothing happened. No angry cries, no threats, nothing. I can only surmise that there are five problems:

1. This family just isn't that popular. Or maybe the descendants have died out. They have become the property of the commons, without anyone taking ownership of them. (entirely possible).
2. The contributors of the documents willingly gave them out for free use on the internet (entirely possible).
3. Maybe, in an age where it is super easy to connect documents to our trees, that people have given up and just assumed it would happen. (entirely possible)
4. They couldn't contact me through Ancestry (although my email is listed in my profile just in case). (again, entirely possible).
5. Or maybe, our proof centered genealogy culture makes thievery a bit of an inevitability. (see below).

#1-4 are entirely possible. Practically a prediction, in fact. #5 though, was the one that made me think more. In discussing this case with several genealogy buddies, it came out that whenever we want to do something in genealogy, we prove it. We make copies of original documents. We take photos. We scan. We post. We do all this in an attempt to prove that we have the "real case" on our ancestor. We want to prove that our knowledge is the "right" knowledge. We even have people trying their darndest to make genealogy snobbery a thing with people claiming snobbily that they only research "the right way, in person".

Is our compulsion to collect the proofs what has encouraged a system of lazy, inadvertent theft? Perhaps. I can see where it would lead to an idea that only we can "own" our ancestors and that the other folks who develop these contents are mere caretakers. But perhaps it is because we do not understand the nature of the cloud system, and we do not trust that sites will be around to forever provide archives of our documents and photos. If that's the case, what do we do then?

Stay tuned for part 3 - learning about book piracy, and part 4 - solutions.
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