Just say no

Say, would you mind…?

You see it all the time, out here on the internet.

It seems perfectly innocent.

It’s just a request for help, and helping is something we do here in the genealogical community.

theftIt goes like this:

I don’t subscribe to Big-Pay-Website but I understand that Important Document For My Family is available there. Would someone who is a Big-Pay-Website subscriber please get me a copy of Important Document? I’d sure appreciate it.

There’s only one honest and ethical answer that can be given to that question:


The simple fact is, it’s wrong.

Just plain wrong.

For the person asking for that Important Document, it’s freeloading.

It’s like asking your neighbor who has high speed cable internet service if you can run your wire to his modem so you can use his service. Or if he’d mind sharing the password to his router so you can use his wireless system.

Pure and simple, it’s taking something without paying for it.

And for the person who subscribes to Big-Pay-Website, it’s no different from taking a pencil from your employer’s stockroom for your friend to use — when you’d never dream of taking a pencil from your employer for yourself.

The fact is, it costs money to provide easy online access to a wide variety of documents. Somebody has to pay for acquiring the documents, scanning them, digitizing them, making the equipment and software available to serve them up online.

Big-Pay-Website can only pay for those things if people pay it — fairly and squarely — for the information it provides. To stay in business, it sets terms and conditions for our use of the website.

And that’s what those of us who are subscribers agree to when we sign up. We may not like the terms and conditions; we may whine and moan about the costs.

But that’s the deal, and we’ve agreed to it. Big-Pay-Website is keeping its end of the bargain by making the documents available. We need to keep our end by using the access under the limits set in the terms and conditions.

And those terms often say we can only use Big-Pay-Website for our own research. Sometimes that includes research we’re hired to do for others, but particularly with some of the online newspaper sites, it’s our own personal research only.

Reader Jerry Kocis ran across a variation on this recently in a genealogy group on Yahoo.com. The message there focused on a newspaper article about the death of a member of the inquirer’s family in a train accident in 1890, and the newspaper website at issue has terms that limit its use to our own personal research only.

Jerry posted it on Google+ as an ethics question:

Is it right (ethical) to avoid paying for a subscription to a site’s content by asking for a subscriber to locate the content for you?

Just asking the question gives the answer. No. It’s not right.

Now there is a difference between verifying that the document exists and actually getting a copy of the document. Knowing for sure that the newspaper is available on a particular pay website and that the article is in the paper may be the incentive that pushes me over into subscribing to the site to get that article.

But if I ask you to use your subscription to get me a copy of the article itself?

You know what to tell me. You know I really do have other options. You know I can write to the newspaper. I can go to a library that has the newspaper on microfilm. I can hire someone in that area to track down a physical copy. I can do all the things we as genealogists used to do before there were Big-Pay-Websites, before there was an internet.

So if I ask, just say no, okay? It’s wrong.

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57 Responses to Just say no

  1. I usually tell them about using the library version of Big Pay Website at their own local library, or to sign up for the free two week trial. The problem is that although I say no, or ignore the request, or give alternatives, some kind hearted, unknowing soul will give in and do the look up.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The library version is a good choice if Big Pay Website has one — but you’re right about those kind hearted unknowing souls. Sigh…

  2. Lucie LeBlanc Consentino says:

    This does happen a lot – I’ve noticed that some who never do a pay web site spend money on unrelated genealogy things like games. I see it right on Facebook after some of us have been asked to do look ups.

    Good post Judy! Thanks.


  3. Sally Woolley says:

    What about those of us who work on applications for lineage groups? We are not reimbursed by the group and it is part of our service. So if a prospective member, who is not even an amateur genealogist, asks for help, we just say “sorry, you will have to spend the same $500 a year I do in order to hope that you can find something”?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The fact that you’re working as a volunteer for a lineage society doesn’t give you any special privilege to ignore the terms of use of the Big Pay Websites to which you subscribe. If the Big Pay Website terms say personal use only, then the prospective member may need to go to the local library and do some research there, using the library’s subscription.

    • Jade says:

      If you wish to volunteer your research services, you can locate the requisite documentation, then give your applicant the information by which actual copies can be obtained.

      Judy’s points concerning the document-holders’ costs to maintain any paper/microfilm archive as well as a website, in addition to whatever costs or agreements were involved in obtaining the material, are very well taken.

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        That’s fair, Jade: I have no problem in saying, for example, that there’s an article in a particular newspaper.

    • Genevieve says:

      It seems to me that someone who is interested in joining a lineage society should be willing to pay subscription fees to get the required information to join. I have to wonder — they aren’t the least bit interested in family history research, so why are they joining a lineage society? If they only want the prestige, shouldn’t they be willing to make some kind of investment for it?

      • Judy G. Russell says:

        This isn’t just by people who want to join a lineage society. Lots of genealogists don’t stop and think that by asking someone else to use a subscription database they’re really asking that person to violate the rules.

  4. Lucie LeBlanc Consentino says:

    To be honest, when I applied to the DAR I had to find all of my own documentation as well as translate it since all of my records were in French. I believe that if someone wants something.. really wants something badly enough, they will do what it takes to get it done. I had to also do a bit of traveling to get the records I needed.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I can’t imagine relying entirely on someone else — unless I paid that person! — to put together a lineage application.

  5. Mary Starr says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. To me it is a form of stealing. Unfortunately to some whom I said no to leaves them to say I’m a you-know-what which just reconfirms in my mind that my no decision was correct.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I have trouble understanding the entitled attitude that lets someone get angry when you say no to freeloading.

      • Israel P. says:

        When I do a favor for a person I don’t know, I will often say “Please don’t tell anyone I did this without turning on the meter. I have a reputation to maintain. LOL!”

        Often as not, that person will hire me when next she (and they usually are) needs something.

      • Jason Lee says:

        It shouldn’t be hard to understand. This is deeply embedded in our culture. The “entitled attitude” is reinforced by our society’s most cherished institutions. Our way of life is built on the idea that we should get a dollar’s worth of goodies for about 60 cents and that generations who have no say in the matter should be obliged to make up the difference.

        Freeloading for documents? That’s peanuts compared to the rest.

  6. Jen Baldwin says:

    Well said, Judy. I believe this issue will become more and more prevalent as the digital resources get larger, and I’m glad you addressed it here. This is also one of the reasons that sites like findmypast.com (i.e. Big Pay Website) has programs in place for society partnerships. I don’t use FMP a lot, but I find those initiatives to be more on the creative and innovative end of supplying more resources to more people, while still supporting both the site and the individual researcher. I hope that more of the Big Pay Websites engage in similar programs (and if they do, forgive me, I just haven’t heard about it yet.)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The cooperative ventures are really wonderful opportunities for both the Big Pay Websites and the societies. Hope we see a LOT more of them in the future.

  7. Sue says:

    Our state library and genealogy society had documents that were a great asset—all indexed in a hand written card catalog. Ancestry.com came and digitized the catalog and made it available on line. I saw first hand the enormous amount of work it took to this, and I am not about to complain about the subscription cost again. If you lived across the country and needed our resources, you could subscribe. Or, you could by a plane ticket, rent a car, pay for food and lodging and do your own research.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I can’t begin to imagine the amount of work involved. Well, actually, having tried to digitize part of my own private holdings, I can begin to imagine it — and it makes me shudder.

  8. Laura says:

    I’m always amazed when people on some of the mailing lists I subscribe to send out these requests, more or less publicly. It’s sort of like putting it out in front of the whole world (or at least your colleagues) that you are dishonest. Yes, we all know now! Then, when they send back a thanks to the whole list (without naming names of who helped), I cringe.

    When I was younger and new to the office environment, my dad drilled into me that even taking a paper clip home was setting a precedent of thievery. One small act can lead to larger ones.

  9. Loretta says:

    I’m always surprised when people ask right on the Big Pay Website’s Facebook page. I have to say that I’ve never seen or heard of action being taken against those who ask or those who answer.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Big Pay Website is in a bit of a tough spot from a public relations standpoint, isn’t it? It’s darned if it does and darned if it doesn’t…

  10. Tim Campbell says:

    I believe that interest in genealogy has exploded BECAUSE OF the internet. Then, sites like FamilySearch and the GenWeb chapters aim to make data available free of charge.

    Look at the movie and music industries. These groups are losing millions of dollars to downloaders thinking “because it’s there” they get it for free. Too many newbies have expressed that if it’s free in the wild it should be free on the internet as well. They simply miss the point of cost and who’s paying for it.

    I must admit that I too used many free resources and asked for lookups on forums until I realized that the library and Family History Center versions of “Big-Pay-Website” were feature reduced, and the only way to get to some material is by subscription.

    But if you look at the problem from a novice perspective all you see is a constant “pay” message. Which “Big-Pay-Website” is worth the investment and which can I avoid? How do I know which is worth my hard-earned money and which are only looking to fleece an unsuspecting consumer? The more the image of industry rip-off grows and flourishes, the more this ethical issue grows.

    I like your explanation Judy. Can I have permission to quote a few lines and link back to this post the next time I see a lookup request on one of my forums?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I absolutely do understand that newbies (me too! I did it too!) don’t see the back end costs and have trouble understanding why they should pay at all, and who to pay if they decide paying is necessary. It sure isn’t easy! And yes you may have permission to quote — and thank you for asking!

  11. Suzanne M Johnston says:

    I wish I’d said that! Thank you for confirming that I’m not the Grinch when I say “no.”

  12. Jana Last says:


    I want to let you know that two of your blog posts are listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/11/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-november-15.html

    Have a wonderful weekend!

  13. Daniel Wolinski says:

    What a joke, this whole argument goes out the window as soon as you state– “And those terms often say we can only use Big-Pay-Website for our own research. Sometimes that includes research we’re hired to do for others”– Why should professional genealogists get to use Big-Pay-Websites for others and make money off of them and not others who would do it for free and not make a dime… both are abusing the system so it should be ok for both or neither. I almost think ancestry hired you to blog about this.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The idea that Ancestry would hire me is enough to make a cat laugh.

      • Daniel Wolinski says:

        Thanks for posting my comments, I almost thought you wouldn’t… It shows your a stand up person.

      • John Watson says:

        Judy, would you please answer Daniel’s question? I had the same question when I read your article.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          It’s a simple answer: the terms of that website say so. It doesn’t matter if we LIKE them. Those are the terms. I don’t LIKE paying taxes to support programs I disagree with, but I do it. I may not LIKE the terms of a website, but if I use that website, I abide by its terms. And in reality, the hit a website takes because of professional use is fairly small. There aren’t all that many professionals out there, and most of them are serious about abiding by their agreements with their clients and with the websites they subscribe to. It’s an entirely different thing to have every single subscriber free to copy documents willy-nilly for anyone who asks. That’s where the website might flounder financially. And other websites, like one Big Pay Newspaper Website, have agreements with their providers that say nobody can republish the documents for any reason. It’s the terms of the individual website that will control. Your choice if you don’t like the terms is not to use that website.

          • John Watson says:

            Thanks, Judy. That somewhat clarifies the matter. I guess I’ll have to start charging for my services so I can call myself a “professional” and, thus, comply withe the Terms of Service.

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            I suspect you’d have far fewer requests from people for copies of documents that way…

          • Aaron Ginsburg says:

            There seems to be a pass here for so-called professionals. And how do we know that most of them abide by their agreements? I doubt it. There are other issues here such as the vast extensions to the length and breadth of copyright to enable more money to be made from human knowledge. Are those extensions ethical? Are they a good idea? Maybe, maybe not. The laws that allow corporations to tie up human knowledge does not necessarily rise to a level that makes breaking them a matter of ethics. And this applies to many laws…which are changeable by the way. Just because something is legal does not make it right. Your approach puts a disproportionate amount of the burden of justifying things on the user.

          • Judy G. Russell says:

            No, my approach requires each and every one of us to abide by the contracts we enter into with the websites we use. That’s what the law expects. It’s what we have to do.

  14. John Watson says:

    Maybe not. I was thinking along the lines of a penny per lookup.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Playing semantical games won’t make somebody a professional. If I were the website, I’d cancel the subscription of anybody I caught doing that. And I’d be entirely within my rights to do so.

      • John Watson says:

        Then, the Terms of Service should include a definition of “Professional.” I have always read that the only difference between a professional and an amateur genealogist is that the professional receives money for their research.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          I repeat: playing semantical games will not make someone a professional. Anyone can try to game the system. I wish that person luck if he gets caught.

  15. When I was poor and could not afford to pay for research, a distant cousin gave me free access to her Ancestry page. Later, when I had just the US version of Ancestry, this same cousin gave me free access to her world subscription. I am not sure I shared the information that I found there, but I might have put it on my freepages website.

    Now that I have world access to Ancestry, I do help cousins who ask, if they are not on Ancestry, or if they do not have the same access. I have many people listed as “Contributors” on my Ancestry page, all related somehow.

    So I am appreciative of the help I received when I could not afford it, and I do now freely share, when asked.


  16. Michele Lombardi says:

    A lot of comments have been posted already about the “freeloading” of pay-sites so I don’t know that I need to add my 2 cents there, but there is something (somewhat related) that does bother me at times:

    What about the ‘freeloading’ of someone else’s time — and expertise?

    More often than not, the “quick” look-up we’re asked to do is anything but quick! It ends up taking time. And time is money.

    Not to mention the years of study, and practice, and money that went into gaining the expertise to do such work — that some expect to get for free.

    It seems it’s still hard for people to grasp that genealogy is a true profession. We have paying clients that we’re attending to. We can’t just put them aside and do free internet ‘quick’ look-ups all day.

    Would they ask the same of a lawyer? A hair dresser? A mechanic? Or any other professional service? Would someone say…”I know you’ve got clients booked, but will you just do this for free?” Some are even demanding in the language that they use too — and don’t so much as even say ‘thank you’ if you do help them out.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Speaking as someone who’s been in active practice as a lawyer, I can assure you that, yes, there are folks who did (and I’m sure still do) ask for help and advice. They were usually put off when I told them that for most of my active career I was a prosecutor…

      • Ggordone says:

        I know a doctor who got tired of being constantly asked for medical advice at every party or other social occasion he attended, usually by people to whom he had just been introuduced. It had come to the point where he dreaded having to attend what ought to have been enjoyable celebrations. He started pointing out to his fellow guests that they were welcome to make an appointment to come in to his office for a proper consultation rather then expecting him to work with incomplete information concerning their medical history, but some still didn’t take the hint — until he stared to send out small bills to repeat offenders after every party.

        People seem to feel no compunction about asking anyone to whom they have just been introduced for free professional advice, be it a stockbroker they expect to provide tips about the next big IPO, or a bank officer from whom they seek advice about getting a loan. Even for those who truly love their work, there comes a point where it is an imposition to expect them to work for free on what is supposed to be their day off.

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  18. Paul K. Graham says:


    I wanted to run something by you. Do you consider the phrase “personal family history research” to mean only researching your own family, or does it mean research conducted by you personally on any family’s history? I ask because the big pay sites say you can use their content for personal purposes.

    Personally, I see a difference between the following scenarios.

    1. Someone asks me to download the image of the marriage certificate of Robert Williams who married 21 June 1878 in Nashville, Tennessee.
    2. Someone asks if I can help figure out when and where Robert Williams married. I know about the Tennessee marriages collection at Ancestry.com and decide to use that collection try and find the document.

    Mainly its because I define “research” as a process involving my personal choices, as opposed to a look-up when someone else is telling me exactly what to do.

    With the second option, once I find the record I then have three choices. I can report that the marriage is there and provide an abstract with the relevant details. I can download the high resolution scan. Or I can use the share-by-email option provided by the website. I admit I have done all three at different times.


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I have no doubt that the sites that say research is limited to “personal family history research” mean only “researching your own family.” Ancestry, of course, doesn’t have that limitation: its terms of use provide that “You may access the Website, use the graphics, information, data, editorial and other Content only for personal or professional family history research.”

  19. Carson Turner says:

    There’s some discussion to be had here defining “professional”; if we examine any number of examples from any number of professions, the definition does not require that anyone is paid. A physician who provides a surgery at no cost doesn’t become an amateur by doing so. An attorney who represents a client gratis is likewise not an amateur by having done so. It’s not really semantics at all – it’s a function of defining the profession more clearly. If I elect to prepare a family history report for someone, whether I’m a professional researcher does not depend upon how much, if anything, I charge them for the work. Very many professionals around the world work entirely for free.

    That said, if everyone goes around doing free surgeries, legal work, and family history research – some folks (including Big Pay Website) just might have some trouble making a living and the collateral damage would be far-reaching. That means there’s some more depth to the ethical question of providing “free lookups” that extend beyond the ToS of Big Pay Website.

  20. Ava Cohn says:

    Carson makes an excellent point about professionalism. Since so many people do their genealogy as a hobby they think everything should be free. I often get people who want me to analyze and research their photos for free. They have to understand that this takes time and expertise to get a photo interpretation correct. Doing this type of work is the same as working on someone’s family tree yet many people don’t value professionalism. They would rather post something for free and get uneducated (and perhaps) wrong answers than to hire a professional to give them real help. Asking a professional to do that for free is the equivalent of cheating the Big Box ancestry sites. Professionals have expenses like advertising, supplies, exhibit fees etc. so asking for free help basically means that that professional is funding your research. This is not good etiquette. Nor is it good etiquette to not thank a professional who may offer pro bono info. This happens quite often too.

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  22. Sandy Rumble says:

    May I say, as I have done to many genealogists, that most public libraries and many genealogical and historical societies provide access to many of these “Big Pay Websites”. Of course, you do not get to have a “personal tree” when you use the “Big Pay Websites” thru this access but you do have free access to the website, subject to page printing costs.

    The point is, that when you subscribe to these “Big Pay Websites” you are agreeing to a legal contract. Read the fine print, I know no one does, but we are supposed to do so. If you disagree with the restrictions, do not subscribe to the website. You always have the option go to your local library, family history center, genealogical or historical society and access the content using their subscription, which allows them to provide access to patrons taking advantage of the services provided.

    We don’t always get to have our cake and eat it too. If we want access to the records online, without the expense of traveling, from the privacy of our own homes, it is fair to pay for the service provided. And yes, that usually includes not “sharing our subscription services” with others.

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