The sky is falling! The end is nigh! People are deleting their trees!
Why? Because Ancestry recently updated their Terms—the contract between us and them—to say that some rights we grant them don’t expire, specifically, their right to use content we upload, like trees, images, and stories. Here’s the relevant text:
By submitting User Provided Content through any of the Services, you grant Ancestry a perpetual, sublicensable, worldwide, non-revocable, royalty-free license to host, store, copy, publish, distribute, provide access to, create derivative works of, and otherwise use such User Provided Content 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.
I mean, that does sound pretty dire. They can use my photos and stories for whatever they want! Even to make money! (Hint: They’re a business.)
But here’s the thing: there are only two words in that passage that are new: perpetual and non-revokable. Everything they could do with our content under these new Terms they could also do on Monday. And no one cared then.
The only difference now is that the agreement doesn’t expire. And for the most part, we don’t want it to. After all, if I share a picture of my great-great grandmother Isaure and you attach it to your tree, neither of us wants that photograph to be lost forever when I die.
So why the hubbub?
Honestly, I think most people are upset because they never bothered to read the Terms in the first place. Then, when they saw others fretting about the change, they overreacted and mass hysteria ensued. After all, almost none of the discontent on social media right now is about the two words that actually changed; it’s about the fact that Ancestry can use our content in the first place.
But they always could!
That’s why online trees are so valuable for genealogists. We post public trees precisely because we want relatives to find them. We want to share. And to share online, we have to give the platform permission.
If you don’t want to share, that’s fine, too. You can rock it old school on paper, keep your tree on your personal computer, or even post to a private online tree.
But know this: if you post your tree publicly on any genealogy site, you are agreeing to essentially the same terms.
Don’t believe me?
Here are the relevant Terms from a few other genealogy websites:
|By posting content on the Website, you grant us a royalty-free, worldwide, perpetual and non-exclusive license to host, copy, post and distribute such content.
|The grant of these rights to us is irrevocable, worldwide, and royalty-free. We can use all or part of your content in advertising and marketing materials for our products.
|You grant, and agree to grant, Interesting.com a license to use, copy, distribute, display, perform, and transmit the User Content you post in connection with Interesting.com’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business. …. The licenses granted by you in this Section 5 in User Content are non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, sublicenseable, and transferable.
|You hereby grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to Geni a limited license to use, modify, publicly perform, publicly display, reproduce, distribute, and create derivative works of such Content solely on and through the Geni Services for commercial and non-commercial purposes and Geni’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Geni Services (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels.
|You hereby grant us with an unrestricted, fully paid-up, royalty-free, worldwide, irrevokable, sublicensable, and perpetual license to use any and all information, content, and other materials (collectively, “Contributed Content”) that you submit or otherwise provide to this site.
They all claim the right to use and redistribute our content. Even for profit.
Loose Ends, and a Mea Culpa
Granted, Ancestry made an unforced error here in presenting the new Terms. They didn’t explain clearly what they really meant, so anyone predisposed to distrust them could read the worst into it.
They have since added a couple of sentences to clarify that “Notwithstanding the non-revocable and perpetual nature of this license, it terminates when your User Provided Content is deleted from our systems. Be aware that to the extent you elected to make your User Provided Content public and other users copied or saved it to the Services, this license continues until the content has been deleted both by you and the other users.”
In other words, they’re not scraping our content into a separate collection that lives on forever; they’re just letting us share what’s in our trees. And if the content disappears from our trees, it disappears from Ancestry, too.
Does this mean Ancestry owns my content? No. They say so quite literally in their Terms: “You own your Personal Information and User Provided Content.” Their Copyright Policy confirms that “content which has been contributed to public areas of Ancestry sites listed above by users remains the property of the submitter or the original creator.”
Will they be making content in private trees public? No, the privacy status of your trees does not change.
Are these new terms retroactive? No. Ancestry’s Terms state that “material changes will not apply retroactively and will become effective thirty days after they are posted.” If you make your tree private or delete it by September 2, the change won’t affect you. However, if you continue to use the website after that, you are agreeing to the new terms for your public trees.
How does this change affect copyrighted material? It does not. If you’ve uploaded your own copyrighted content to Ancestry, you granted them the right to use it at the time. And if someone else uploads your copyrighted material, you can ask Ancestry to remove it.
Should they be making money off paying subscribers? Well, I certainly hope they’re making money! That’s what businesses are supposed to do. But whether you subscribe is beside the point, because you don’t pay Ancestry to host your tree. The trees are free. A subscription gives you access to genealogy records and, yes, to user content. In fact, if you subscribe and encourage everyone to delete their content, you’re making your own subscription less valuable.
Does this change affect DNA kits? No. DNA data is considered “Personal Information,” not “User Provided Content” (their jargon, not mine). Personal information is not affected by the updated terms. This is where I owe Ancestry an apology. When I first read the new Terms, I incorrectly thought DNA was affected. What can I say? I was jet-lagged, it was late, and I read too fast. No excuses, though: I was wrong. DNA kits are not affected.
What are you going to do, DNA Geek? Me? I’m not going to do a darned thing. My public trees will stay public. My private trees will stay private. And I will continue to use Ancestry, along with MyHeritage and FamilySearch, as my primary online tree repository.
Brenda Leong, 2019, Copyrights and Privacy: What Is the Irrevocable License and Is It Really a Privacy Concern?, Future of Privacy Forum