Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Are genealogy web pages in the public domain?

There has been some discussion in the soc.genealogy.britain newsgroup about genealogy web pages containing details of living people, and this spun off into a discussion about whether such information is in the public domain.

In the course of discussion it emerged that some people have a mistaken understanding of the meaning of "public domain".

When something is in the public domain, it means that it is not, or is no longer, subject to copyright.

One participant in the discussion said that that definition only applied in the USA, and that in the UK "it merely means that something is known to the public or a relevantly significant section of them".

That is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. A best-selling novel or a currently popular song may be "known to the public or a relevantly significant section of them", but that does NOT mean that it is in the public domain.


Top 10 Copyright Myths page from UK Copyright Service.

which says, among other things, that
Everything on the Internet ‘public domain’ and free to use[sic]

This highlights a common misunderstanding about what is meant by ‘public domain’ when referring to copyright work.

A work will fall into the public domain once copyright expires, this will typically be many years after the author’s death.

While work published on the Internet may be publicly accessible, it is certainly not in the public domain.
Putting something on the Internet is not putting it in the public domain.

But, having said that, if you write your family history and publish it, whether on the Internet, in a book, or in any other form, while the wording of the text and your arrangement of the material are copyright (unless you deliberately put them in the public domain), the facts contained within the text are not copyright. If you put in the date and place of your grandfather's birth, and someone includes those facts in their genealogy, there is no breach of copyright. You can't copyright facts.

A historian who writes "The German Army invaded Poland on 1 September 1939" cannot sue another historian who writes the same thing. But if the other historian quotes several pages of the first one's book without acknowledgement, that is a breach of copyright. It is also plagiarism, which is a moral offence rather than a legal one.

If something is in the public domain, you may freely reproduce it, alter it, and sell copies of it.

How do you know if it is in the public domain?

P-10: Copyright Law | Duration Of Copyright:
What happens when copyright expires?

When the term of copyright protection has expired, the work falls into the public domain. This means that the work, has effectively become public property and may be used freely.

It should be stressed that actual duration will vary under national laws, and you should check the laws of individual countries before you attempt to use a work.

Can I claim copyright for a work that has expired?

No, once a work is in the public domain it is available to all. You cannot stop others using the work and you will have no claim to copyright on the work.

That doesn't stop unscrupulous businessmen and their lawyers from trying to claim copyright on things that are in the public domain. Can you imagine the term "tea" being copyright, or a registered trademark, so you have to write "Tea (TM)" every time you use it? One American firm tried it on with roobos tea, a herbal tea that has been used in South Africa for generations. It took a long and expensive court battle to get them to drop their pretensions and acknowledge that it was in the public domain. You can read more about that here. There are some more examples at Notes from underground: Do Americans have any concept of "justice"?.

Things can just as easily go the other way.

Solomon Linda, a South African musician, composed a song Mbube back in 1939. The Disney Corporation used it in their film The Lion King, and claimed that the song was in the public domain. It wasn't. It took a long and expensive court case to get them to pay royalties to Linda's heirs; Linda himself died in poverty, though lots of record companies and others made a lot of money out of his song. And you can read more about that here.

I doubt that anyone is going to make a fortune out of genealogy, but nevertheless, be careful, be very careful, about how you use the term "public domain".

Friday, August 19, 2011

Geni.com Just Got a Whole Lot Worse

Quite a number of genealogy bloggers have commented on this announcement by on-line family tree provider Geni.com, and seeing through the spin, have realised that Geni.com has just got a whole lot worse.

Geni Pro Just Got a Whole Lot Better:
At Geni, our vision is to empower the genealogy community to create the world family tree, the single largest, most accurate, and comprehensive family tree in existence. Thanks to the efforts of our curators and power users, the world family tree is fast approaching 60 million profiles, and is more accurate, better sourced, and has less duplication than ever. And we’re just getting started.
The only surprise is that anyone was surprised.

Something similar happened a few years ago when MyHeritage took over GenCircles, and one can expect the same thing to happen with again other similar sites.

I once wasted two days trying to join Geni.com, and in the end decided that it was fatally flawed, and decided not to bother (if you're interested in the details, you can read about that here Geni.com — a flawed site | Hayes & Greene family history).

You can read some of the comments by other genealogical bloggers here:
A lot of people join such online family tree sites in the hope of collaborating with others in their genealogical research. But the model on which such sites operate actually hinders cooperation as much as it promotes it.

Consider the kind of thing that happens when people set up such a site. This is not what happened in any particular instance, but is rather the model, and it is the model itself, rather than any particular instance of it, that is flawed.

You start an online family tree site, but you have no data that will bring genealogists to it. So you offer to build people's family trees free and easy. Make it a Facebook "app" that will make it easy for people to invite their family members to join.

Some genealogists are attracted, and contribute their data. Others, who joined just for fun, or out of curiosity, or because they were invited by another family member, join in too. They don't have much to contribute to begin with, but some of them get the genealogy bug and start contributing.

Encourage people to copy from other people's family trees -- this makes it easy to claim statistics for lots of "profiles", though many of them are for the same person copied to lots of different trees, and linked to each tree owner's own ancestors or descendants or relatives, regardless of facts.

Make it even easier by guessing place names, even if the guesses are wrong. If someone types "Richmond" for where old uncle Fred was born, helpfully add that it was "Richmond, Virginia" rather than "Richmond, Yorkshire" or "Richmond-on-Thames" or "Richmond, Natal". By the time the original person has realised that it is wrong and corrected it, it will have been copied to half a dozen other profiles, which can then be added to the statistics of how many profiles are available, because they must be different, since they were born in different places.

Soon you have a lot of data, and you need bigger servers to keep it on, and more and more people are wanting to access it. You also need to hire people to keep the servers running, and by this time it has become a worldwide concern, and so you need shifts of people to keep the servers running day and night. Before you know it there is a large and growing staff who all have to be paid, and since there is now enough data to warrant it, you can now begin charging for access, and limiting the "free" users (who contributed most of the data that enabled you to get going) in ways that you hope will encourage them to pay.

But soon even that is not enough, because many of the "free" users do not sign up, so you have to place even more restrictions upon them, and eventually you begin charging them even to look at the data they themselves have contributed. The restrictions annoy even the paid users, who start losing interest, and instead of coming in faster, the money begins to dry up, so staff have to be laid off, and operations curtailed, and eventually it either closes or is taken over by someone with a similar operation, who buy it for what they see as the greatest assets, the data and the existing user base.

The price paid usually enables the founders of the site to retire, without having to do another day's work in their lives, while the poor suckers who contributed their data to make them rich now find that they no longer have access to their data, and realise too late that they should have kept it in a genealogy program on their own computer, and now they have to start again from scratch.

A fanciful scenario? Perhaps. But compare it with some of the online genealogy sites you know.

In saying this, I'm not saying that online trees are quite useless. They have a lot of uses, but they could be more useful if they operated according to a better model, and one of the things serious genealogists should be doing is giving thought to a better model.

One of the better such sites I know is TribalPages, and I even have my own genealogy on that site. It's not perfect, but it's better than some of the others, and here are some of the things that makes it better.
  • It gives links to other sites, which enables people to make direct contact
  • It gives a good explanation of how the site operates
  • It is under control of the owner
I have set up my tree on TribalPages in such a way that it is easy for people to contact me to collaborate, whether they do so directly or indirectly.

But so far the collaboration I have found in that way is nil.

Several people have asked me for a password to access my tree.

I tell them I only give access to known relations, and so ask them to tell me where they fit into the tree -- which member of the family they think they are related to, and how they are related to that person. I also explain (and it is also explained on the site itself) that I have much more and more up-to-date data than is shown on the tree, which I will share with them when they show me where they fit in, and then I will give them access to the tree.

A couple responded in a way that made clear that they were not known to be connected. Others, however, never responded, and I suspected that they were data leeches. They want to reap the fruits of other people's research, but they don't want to contribute anything of their own, not even the few links that will show how they themselves connect to the tree.

When I look at online trees, and see a connection to my family, I do my best to contact the person who compiled the tree. I don't like taking data without the compiler knowing about it. But it seems that very few people observe such courtesies, and that many online tree sites encourage people to copy without acknowledgement. And some of the people I have tried to contact have not responded. I still acknowledge if I have taken anything from their tree though.

GeneaPress: 1940 Census To Be Free on Ancestry.com

GeneaPress: 1940 Census To Be Free on Ancestry.com: Ancestry.com, the world’s largest online family history resource, today announced that both the images and indexes to the 1940 U.S. Federal Census will be made free to search, browse, and explore in the United States when this important collection commences streaming onto the website in mid-April 2012.

When complete, more than 3.8 million original document images containing 130 million plus records will be available to search by more than 45 fields, including name, gender, race, street address, county and state, and parents’ places of birth. It will be Ancestry.com’s most comprehensively indexed set of historical records to date.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Yahoo hacked - warning

Yesterday I uploaded a family history file to one of our groups on Yahoogroups, and today my wife wanted to have a look at it and her antivirus software chirped a warning.

I investigated and found it that the Yahoogroups site had been hacked, and all the filenames pointed to a malware site. A quick look at some other forums showed the same thing - the filenames had been hacked.

I've tried to report this to Yahoo! They don't make it easy. They tell you they only accept reports of technical vulnerabilities (which this is) from "the online security community" (whatever that may be). It's a bit like being mugged and wanting to report it to the police station and being told that you can only report it at the police station where you live, and then being told that you can only report it at the police station where you were mugged, and then being told, no, you must go to the police station where the mugger lives, and generally being given the run-around. Well my Yahhogroups files have been mugged, and so, I think, have a lot of other people's.

To check, hover your cursor over the link to the file you want to download from Yahoohroups. Look at the bottom left of your screen (in Firefox, I don't know about other browsers) and see the URL it shows you. If it says "yahoofs", back off. Wait for Yahoo! to fix it.

Many genealogists who use computers are not computer fundis at all, and just know about using their genealogy program, and perhaps a word processor, and e-mail program, and so could easily fall into this trap, so please spread this warning round the genealogical community.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Place names: Camp Growden, Washington USA

My mother's maiden name was Growdon, and I'm interested in anything that mentions the name Growdon or Growden, so when I came across this news item it piqued my curiosity.

Log structure moved, renovated to preserve CCC project’s history - Spokesman.com - July 30, 2011
The work was back-breaking; the pay, modest. Living conditions were primitive – barracks in the Colville National Forest.

But in the 1930s, many young men considered themselves lucky to have a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps at Camp Growden. They built roads and trails, fought fires and felled trees for $30 per month. During the Great Depression, when many Americans were hungry and homeless, they had a roof over their heads and regular meals.

“Tonight, we had venison, mashed potatoes, beans and all the pie you could eat,” one CCC enrollee at Camp Growden wrote to his parents.

Today, the former CCC camp is a rest stop on Washington’s Highway 20, about 10 miles west of Kettle Falls. The camp’s military-style barracks, the mess hall and office buildings were torn down long ago. Just one building survived: a log structure that served as changing rooms for CCC recruits who swam in the Camp Growden’s man-made lake.

What interested me, of course, was how Camp Growden got its name in the first place.

There are natural place names, sentimental place names, and political place names.

Political place names are places named after some politician or bureaucrat who may not have had any association with the place at all. Durban in KwaZulu/Natal, for example, was named after a Governor of the Cape Colony who never, so far as I know, set foot in the town named after him. In this case, Camp Growden may have been named after some bureaucrat far away who decided that the camp should be built there, and may never have set foot in the place that bears his (or her) name. From the family history point of view, the interest moves to the place where the bureaucrat lived and worked.

Sentimental place names derive from migrants who settled in a place that reminded them of a place they had lived before. They are of some historical interest because they tell us something about the movements of people. I don't think there are lots of places named Growden, so this is unlikely in this case.

Natural place names are named after people who lived in the place, or after some event or feature of the place.

And this, it seems, is what happened in this case.

A Google hunt led me to Washington Rural Heritage : Item Viewer, which said, "Mr. and Mrs. Growden operated this stage station at the confluence of Lane and Sherman creeks on the road West between Kettle Falls and Republic. The CCC Camp Growden was later located near this site."

And it had a picture of E.B. and Amanda Growden:

From my own genealogical records I see that E.B. Growden was Edmund Blair Growden (1850-1926), and his wife was Amanda H. McNeal (1856-1941). E.B. Growden was born in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, USA, and was the son of Edmund Blair Growden and Rachel Blair. He's no kin of mine, as far as I know, though his Growden ancestors and mine came from the same part of Cornwall in England, so there may be a link further back in history than we have managed to trace.

I have no record of any children of E.B. and Amanda Growden, but from the picture there would appear to have been at least one child, so I'd be interested to learn of any descendants. And any descendants, and other descendants of Growden families, are welcome to join us on the Growden Family Forum.

Keith Zimmer dies, kept track of deaths

Spare a thought for the people who have indexed genealogical records to make it easier for the rest of us to find them.

Keith Zimmer dies, kept track of deaths: "Keith Zimmer started keeping track of dead people as an experiment in 1992.

He worked at the Central Library in downtown St. Louis and he and his bosses wondered: Would anyone want a list of the obituaries published in the Post-Dispatch?

The librarians soon found their answer: Once the Internet came into wide use in the mid-1990s, library officials got requests from people around the world wanting to look up deaths chronicled in the newspaper.

Along with the obituaries, which are news stories written by reporters, Mr. Zimmer also indexed death notices, which are paid ads in the newspaper's classified section. The Post-Dispatch alone has published hundreds of thousands of obituaries and death notices."

Read it all here.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Transcribing digital images

Have you ever had the problem of trying to transcribe the text on a digital image of a document, and found it a schlepp to switch back and forth between an image viewer and your word processor?

Here's some software that is designed to make the task a bit easier. No, it's not an OCR program. It won't transcribe the text for you. But it will keep the text visible on the screen while you transcribe. Useful for those scanned images of letters or wills that have been sent to you be a cousin halfweay round the world, or things you find on web sites and so on.

JacobBoerema.nl: Transcript: makes transcribing easier:
The basic idea is very simple. Divide the screen in two parts. In the upper half the image is shown and in the lower half you can edit the text. (As this is not an OCR program, the program does not convert the text. You have to do the transcription yourself.) The size of those windows can be changed as you wish.

From within the editor you can move the visible part of the image in many ways using shortcuts. You can also use keys to move to the previHave you ever had the problem of trying to transcribe the text on a ous or next image in the same directory. Besides that it is of course possible to use most of the common editor functions also found in
other editors.

Hat-tip to Leslie Ann, who writes about it here Ancestors Live Here: The Transcription of a Will.

I wonder how well it works with digital photos of tombstones?