The Molehill and the Mountain

The sky is falling!  The end is nigh!  People are deleting their trees!

Hand drawing of Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky in mid-hysteria
Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Ducky Lucky mid-hysteria. © Mara L. Pratt-Chadwick, 1905.


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.

Two cartoon characters shaking hands in agreement as they emerge from laptop screens
Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke/Pixabay

Don’t believe me?

Here are the relevant Terms from a few other genealogy websites:

MyHeritage: 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.
FindMyPast: 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.
WikiTree: You grant, and agree to grant, a license to use, copy, distribute, display, perform, and transmit the User Content you post in connection with’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.
Geni: 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.
FamilySearch: 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.


Jose R. Cabello/Pixabay


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.


Additional Reading: 

Brenda Leong, 2019, Copyrights and Privacy: What Is the Irrevocable License and Is It Really a Privacy Concern?, Future of Privacy Forum

A satellite view of a hurricane tempest overlaid on a black teapot
Durova/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0


62 thoughts on “The Molehill and the Mountain”

  1. Thank-you for posting a reasonable assessment of the situation and for pointing out that the other companies have used really similar language. Your blog is the first reasonable blog I’ve read on the subject.

  2. On another blog, it was stated that Ancestry could go into our Private Trees and take, and use, photos, personally written histories, et al.

    1. Private trees are still private. That hasn’t changed. And if you delete something from a private tree that no one else has shared publicly, it’s gone from Ancestry’s system forever.

      1. They are only private to the Public census… Yes, they stay Private, but the uploaded information , pictures, stories etc. are subject to being own by ancestry and under the new umbrella… and are accessible to Ancestry’s new policy

        1. Ancestry does not claim ownership of anything you put on their site. From their Terms: “You own your Personal Information and User Provided Content.”

      2. Gone from their system forever? They perform back ups of back ups and they will not go back and delete it from the back ups…? At work when someone leaves the company we disable access from our databases or software applications but there is always a ‘back up’ of all their data. But I totally agree with you! We give those same permissions to every camera/photo software application we download on our phones.

        1. Under GDPR, they are obligated to remove data from backups. I believe they have 30 days. And while GDPR is not law in the US, Ancestry is subject to it because it advertises in the EU and UK.

  3. THANK YOU for saying all of this, Leah. I couldn’t believe some of the posts that I was reading about this. Clearly people didn’t pay attention to the Terms to begin with. It’s been this way for the 20 years I’ve been using Ancestry and for 17 of those years, I refused to put anything on their site for this very reason. It’s nothing new! But then I got over myself and decided it was more important to share and collaborate and help by putting my stuff out there. The photos I have of my ancestors weren’t mine to begin with, nor were the documents, so I have no right to be mad. You make a lot of great points in your post – thank you!

  4. Possibly and possibly NOT. It means that ANCESTRY can and will USE any thing that any of us have shared to their site, Including OUR DNA sample. And the results from those samples. They are covering their you know what’s just in case in the future someone will bring a class action lawsuit against them.
    Bottom line, Yes, ANCESTRY is a PROFIT MAKING SITE. And that they are doing it in spades. They are probably drowning in customer complaints as well for non performance. And complete incompetent customer support perwsonel.

  5. Wonderfully written, Leah! Absolutely nailed it! Every time we put anything on the internet we should be weighing the risks and benefits. I can say personally that the benefits from sharing my trees and photos have been beyond measure. If I ever upload personal information about my family, what happens to that information is on me, not on Ancestry, regardless of any ToS. The more I’ve thought about this change, the more it makes sense. And we should welcome the transparency.

  6. I am wondering about living people on public trees. I know for the most part they are private, however I have a second cousin that had a public tree. I am almost positive that she did not add a death date for herself before she passed. So she should still be living on her tree, but as soon as I added a death date for her in my own tree, I started seeing pictures she had shared of herself showing up in hints, perhaps it is because I had pictures of her in my tree, but I am pretty sure there were more that I did not already have… just a bit unsure of how the sharing works for those that are living and can anyone say that you have a death date and then you are no longer private??? Any thoughts…

    1. That’s a good question and not something I’ve ever tried. It would make an interesting experiment, though! I do know that if the photo is linked to more than one person in a public tree, it will be visible if any of them have passed.

  7. Thank you for your more reasonable approach to this issue.

    I do not think these other bloggers considered the influence they have over their readers, and they’ve perpetuated this Chicken Little attitude amongst their readers, who’ve disseminated these thoughts all over Facebook.


  8. Excellent piece & well researched, I’ve been telling people using the “sky is falling” thing for past few days myself so good to see same message here, unfortunately I can’t claim Copyright 😉

    Its pretty disgraceful how various blogs etc. have been so grossly misleading and sensationalist on this, all they have done is needlessly upset lots of people. A few hidden agendas maybe ? Hopefully this piece will be well circulated and provide some balance.

  9. Thank you for that explanation! Especially for the comparison to other sites. You’ve eased my mind.

  10. Q – where is it made clear that information/images on private trees will remain private, and where is it stated that information/images related to living people will not be used (in any way the Ancestry desires)and especially not sold? I am fine with all information an images from my parents generation and back, but not my information nor my descendants as we are living and don’t need to have our personal information/photos sold and used for mercenary gains or hackers.

  11. Thank you so much for some common sense in response to the bizarre over-reaction which many people have had to Ancestry’s revision of its Terms and Conditions. It is obvious that the majority of people put their trees and images online because they wish to share their findings with the genealogy community. Those people who are so concerned with their “privacy” should not be putting their trees and images online in the first place. I am a firm believer in “what goes around, comes around”. The more you share, the more you get in return.

  12. I’ve been deluged with emails from genealogy friends, “Privatize your tree like I did! Privatize your tree while you can still do it!” I was horrified by the vision of seeing only a bunch of privatized trees. That would be worthless! I mean, benefiting others with my own research and (usually) well-sourced tree and with pictures of ancestors I have posted was my goal in the first place. So after reading “The Molehill and the Mountain” (thank you SO much!), I’ll leave mine open to the public, for better or worse! Marilyn

  13. Very good information, thank you. My original information was posted in the forum before Ancestry took over. I have never joined Ancestry so how does that affect me ? Ancestry subsequently “allowed” people to create a new individual from a surname name which I had written as Pat(t)erson. That new person went on to marry & have children not withstanding his new wife and children lived in different hemispheres and centuries ! I tried to remove my tree but could not despite writing online to Ancestry – back in their early online days in 1990s.

      1. Thank you but I would have thought that at the time Ancestry took over a database which was not allowed to be downloaded, the information within that database should have been restricted i.e. private, under the new management?

  14. Thank you for this, it has made me reconsider my response. In particular, your highlighting the T’s & C’s of all the other major contributors shows that this is nothing new or unique. Having said that, I do think Ancestry made a rod for their own backs by doing it in what appeared a surreptitious manner, thus making alarm bells ring unnecessarily.

    1. What it surreptitious about it? They’re giving you 30 days notice before the changes go into effect so you can decide what to do. (Note that of the Terms I’ve reviewed recently, only Ancestry and 23andMe give a 30-day heads up.)

  15. Regarding asking Ancestry to remove copyright material, I have been having an email conversation with support but they don’t seem to understand what I am asking. Maybe you can help.
    I have my own web site registered in the UK. I have a transcript of a document that someone has taken a direct copy of and added it to their tree. This document has been saved to 19 other trees, but I can only see 10.
    I have found a form to request the removal from the original tree. If this is successful will it also be removed from all of the other trees? If not there doesn’t seem to be much point in requesting the removal.

    1. I would include direct links to all of the public copies in the DMCA request and also note which private trees contain the transcript. Bear in mind, though, that you may not have a claim here; a transcription is a derivative work. Is your transcription faithful? Or did you add something new and original that is copyrightable? I suggest you consult a lawyer familiar with UK copyright protections. (I am neither.)

      1. Thanks Leah. Ancestry have just confirmed that if the removal request is successful it will be removed from all indexing including the other trees. I now have to decide if it’s worth the bother.

  16. There were over 11,000 individually entered names, some from rare sources, which I have since found being in other places sites as original entries or quoted without reference to my database. Some of my comments were as notes for future research trips.

  17. You can not give ancestry or any one else a sublicence to use these items
    for ever if the uploaded/copied documents are less than 50/70 years old and you do not hold the copyright to said item/s.
    Take for instance BMD’s/newsclippings/photos or any media, if original and over 50/70 years old they are out of copyright.
    If these same documents have been recently obtained within the last 50/70 years you maybe in breach of copyright laws if you use same without obtaining a licence from the copyright owner/holder and paying a fee to use the same.

    Therefore, the changes to the TOS are ambiguous and will not be adhered to by law.

    1. Anyone who uploads content to Ancestry is representing that they have the legal right to do so. From the Terms: “With respect to User Provided Content, you agree that … You have all the necessary legal rights to upload or post your User Provided Content.”

      Ancestry also clearly outlines the process by which a copyright owner can have their material removed from the site if their copyright has been violated.

  18. When signing in c.1995, I was offered the choice downloadable or viewable – because I could not guarantee pers. coms compared to official records I did not want any mistake which I may have made to be replicated, Some sources were disjointed as my hard disk had died & I was not sure how up to date my back up data was. That was why I called it Safeguarding My Genealagy – someone else had a problem but was able to download their own database to a new computer. My reason for putting my work online, and for others to view & advise me if they had found mistakes that needed correcting.

    1. You would have to look back through the various Terms of Service at RootsWeb to see what protections were in place at the time the content was copied. In general, though, there is no way a company can prevent an image online from being copied. The technology simply doesn’t exist. All the company can do is warn you of the risk.

  19. Thanks, DNA Geek! I found you by Googling. I was looking to see if a consensus had been reached on this issue, and have included a link to your post in an update to my own post: Trouble in Ancestry Paradise.

  20. Umm I think you are wrong to a certain degree and scaremongering – 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. ………… So I agree and disagree with your take on the situation – And it only applies to public user content. Anything in a private tree or Media set to private will not be “out there” so to speak.

    1. Yes, that’s more-or-less what the post says. Ancestry always had the right to share our public content. Heck, that’s why we put it there in the first place!

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