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Copyright and Collaborative Family Trees


Unfortunately many of us are all-too-familiar with the following situation experienced by a fellow genealogy blogger:

I recently discovered that a fellow researcher with whom I’d been in contact via email, had posted several photographs and some of my research on her Ancestry Public Tree.  This material had been posted on my blog with copyright information.  In addition, I have copyright warnings and statements all over my site.

Should I ask this person to remove the content from her tree on Ancestry? What recourse do I have if she refuses to do so?

Copyright and Genealogy Research

Despite having copyright statements all over your blog or website, be certain that you understand what can and cannot be covered by US copyright in terms of genealogy research.

Facts cannot be copyrighted – this means information found on a tombstone, birth date information etc.  However, a genealogist can copyright their treatment of that information.  This means if you’ve written a narrative of an ancestor incorporating those facts, this is your work product, your intellectual property and it is yours under copyright law.  This is regardless of whether or not you have a copyright statement displayed.

For more information, Rhonda McClure has written an excellent article entitled Mistake or Misdemeanor? posted over at Ancestry in their Learning Center.  And for an informative look at copyright violation from a genealogist’s perspective, see Copyright Issues: An Open Letter from the Author of “Old Calvary Cemetery—New Yorkers Carved in Stone” also at the Ancestry Learning Center.

The Need for Copyright Education

More and more I am witnessing situations like the one described above and unfortunately I predict that there will be many more instances in the future.  The reason?  Recent media exposure of family history via television shows such as Faces of America and Who Do You Think You Are? are causing more people to go to the Internet and research their own roots.

And everything on the Internet is free, right?  Wrong.  And this is where I try to take the time and educate folks about copyright and genealogy.  I even do this when I send someone a cease and desist notice to remove content that was copied from my blog.  To me, I assume that the person doesn’t understand copyright issues and I see it as an opportunity to educate.

But I’m not naive.  I can tell when someone was misinformed as to attribution and content usage and when someone just doesn’t care and tries to reap the benefits of my hard work.  As I say, “My mama didn’t raise no stupid children.  Just two ugly ones and they’re still at home.”

Requesting Removal of Content – Individual

So how do you request removal of your research when it is misused and posted publicly by another person without attribution on a family tree collaboration site such as Ancestry, Geni or We Relate?  Here are some suggestions:

  • Decide whether you want the offender to add proper attribution for the content or if you want the content removed.
  • Contact the offender via e-mail if possible and explain that the content recently posted was taken from your site.  Include a link to the original content.  Don’t assume that the person saw your blog post – they may have been given the content via email by another person, etc.
  • Be direct but be polite.  There’s no need to be nasty or make accusations.  It is better to assume it was an innocent mistake.
  • If there is no response, the offender becomes defensive or refuses to take action, let them know that you will contact the website and have the content removed (see below).  You have the right to do so under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Requesting Removal of Content – Website

Each of the major collaborative family tree websites has a Terms of Service by which each users must abide while using that site’s resources.  This includes posting user content.

Here are the procedures to be followed for each of the major sites:


  • Send a claim of copyright violation to:
    David P. Farnsworth
    Copyright Agent for Notice
    360 W 4800 N
    Provo, UT 84604 USA
  • Include the following information:
    • Identification of the copyrighted work claimed to be infringed, and the basis of the claim.
    • Identification of the material which is claimed to be infringing, including the URL.
    • Full contact information on the claimed copyright owner or other claimant (who must have a license which is being infringed or other standing to make the claim) including name, address, telephone, fax and email information.
    • A statement, under penalty of perjury, that the information sent is accurate and the complaining party is the owner or an authorized agent of the owner.
    • A physical or electronic signature of the claiming party.


  • Send a claim of copyright violation to:
    Copyright Notices
    Geni, Inc.
    8491 West Sunset Blvd #106
    West Hollywood, CA 90069
    Fax: (310) 651-2010
    Email: help @
  • Include the following information:
    • an electronic or physical signature of the person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of the copyright interest
    • a description of the copyrighted work that you claim has been infringed
    • a description of where the material that you claim is infringing is located on the Geni Services
    • your address, telephone number, and email address
    • a written statement by you that you have a good faith belief that the disputed use is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law
    • a statement by you, made under penalty of perjury, that the above information in your notice is accurate and that you are the copyright owner or authorized to act on the copyright owner’s behalf.

My Heritage

  • While there are statements that content posted to user pages must respect the copyright of the content’s originator, there are no procedures specified for handling a copyright violation complaint.

We Relate

  • Visit the WeRelate copyright infringement page.
  • Since WeRelate is in essence a wiki, it asks that copyright issues be discussed on the Talk pages.
  • If you can verify that your copyrighted content has been used improperly:
    • “then you may request the page be immediately removed from WeRelate by emailing the Copyright Infringement Review Committee. It may take up to a week for the page to be deleted that way. (You may also blank the page but the text will still be in the page history). Either way, we will, of course, need some evidence to support your claim of ownership.”

©2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee

13 thoughts on “Copyright and Collaborative Family Trees

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Copyright and Collaborative Family Trees --
  2. Regarding photos/images – i have put a watermark on all my images. That at least gives the photo an identification of where it came from and in most cases cant be removed by the average person without ruining the image as long the watermark is placed in the right spot…

    Here is one image

  3. Thanks Thomas for explaining the process so clearly for us. I have not encountered this personally to date, but always keep it in the back of my mind and find myself somewhat cautious with info as result. Maybe now I can use some of these tools and include a Creative Commons notice on blog, learn to watermark some info before adding, and other tips.


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