Getting permission

Quoting the living

Anyone who’s been doing genealogy for any length of time has been there. You’re nearing a point where you’re ready to write up what you’ve found, and, all of a sudden, it dawns on you.

Some of the people you want very much to write about may not be nearly as enthusiastic as you are about seeing their names in print. You want to include their information, but you’d rather not find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit — even a lawsuit you could win — from cousin Mary who’s outraged that you mentioned all four of her failed marriages… or from Uncle Seth who hasn’t quite gotten around to telling cousin Joe he was adopted.

Reader Trudy Smith is facing issues like this with a family history book she’s working on, and — smartly — she’s thinking ahead.

“I am creating an interview questionnaire and would like to have the interviewee sign a release so I can use the information provided in our family history book,” she writes. “How should the permission be worded?”

First of all, kudos to Trudy for realizing that living people really really really should be asked for permission before you publish any information about them.

Now the fact is that the law almost certainly doesn’t require that you do that. And the only time you’re in really serious legal trouble is when you publish private information that would be offensive to the ordinary person if you published it about him.1

But we’re into more than just doing what’s legal here at The Legal Genealogist, right? We all want to do what’s right. As a Certified Genealogist, I’m bound by the Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists®, so I’ve promised that “I will keep confidential any personal or genealogical information given to me, unless I receive written consent to the contrary.”2 So I consider it a duty to any living person, client or not, not to publish confidential information without that person’s consent.

Second, even more kudos to Trudy for realizing that, in reality, it’s a lot easier to get somebody to give you permission at the same time they’re giving you the information. I’ve never had trouble getting permission when I’ve asked people for it while I’m interviewing them. And anybody who’s going to object is going to object whether you do it then or later.

And a third set of kudos to Trudy for realizing that she needs to get permission in writing. “I never said you could publish that” is not what you want to hear when your book is at the printer.

So what should the permission form say?

Here’s a real shocker, coming from somebody with a law degree: keep the form in plain simple English.

You not only don’t need any formulaic legalese, it’s just plain counterproductive. All those “heretofores” and “hereinafters” scare the pants off folks and they’re not likely to sign anything they don’t understand.

The key points are to make it absolutely clear what the permission covers (“the information I have provided about myself in the attached questionnaire” or “my responses to questions in the interview today”) and what you’re going to do with it (“in a post for a blog” or “in a book on our Smith family”).

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a form that says:

Jeanne Q. Genealogist has my permission to use the information I have provided about myself in the attached questionnaire in the book she is writing about the history of our Smith Family.
/signed/ __________________________________
Name: ________________, Address: _____________________
Date: _____________________.

For an interview rather than a questionnaire, the form could say:

Jeanne Q. Genealogist has my permission to quote my responses to her questions in the interview today as part of the book she is writing about the history of our Smith Family.
/signed/ __________________________________
Name: ________________, Address: _____________________
Date: _____________________.

And for an oral interview, it’s probably a good idea to get the form signed at the end of the interview, and leave a space for the person to add anything she might have said that she doesn’t want to be quoted about:

Jeanne Q. Genealogist has my permission to quote my responses to her questions in the interview today as part of the book she is writing about the history of our Smith Family. This permission does not include any responses about: (insert topic).
/signed/ __________________________________
Name: ________________, Address: _____________________
Date: _____________________.

Of course, if you’re doing an oral interview, you’d be even better off recording not just the interview but the process of getting the signed permission so you have all the evidence you’d ever need of just what the person interviewed agreed to.

With a plain English explanation on your part, and a plain English permission form, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting permission and never having to say you’re sorry.

Then again, Aunt Gertrude is never going to give you permission to include that story about the Christmas Party and dancing with the lampshade on her head … darn it…


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Private facts in public genealogies,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Mar 2012 ( : accessed 19 Mar 2013).
  2. Board for Certification of Genealogists®, Code of Ethics and Conduct ( : accessed 19 Mar 2013)
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16 Responses to Getting permission

  1. Tim Campbell says:

    There is more to permission when you want to consider what is right. A cousin published a great family history in the 80′s, asking the next generation to “take the torch”. As the webmaster of a large genealogical website I’ve had to deal with issues of privacy which has shaped my approach. In the two family histories I have published, the families end with my parents generation, with little detail beyond my grandparents generation. That way most of the people in the book are deceased with little more than names of a few who are still living.

    Another cousin, however, took the original book, scanned and digitized it and put in online: and the howling began. Overwhelmed by threats of lawsuits, the site was gone in less than a year.

    I have the meaty details I did not want to publish on my computer as well as a self-published report in a binder on my bookshelf.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The Internet really does make a difference, Tim. Publishing a book few will read, okay. Putting it online for everyone to read? Not so much.

  2. Magda says:

    So , so true , Judy . I love that idea. Everyone in my family knows that I do not want data on them or their kids or even their parents. A lot of online trees have privacy settings like WikiTree .
    Just like Tim mentioned above , 20 years ago I naively wrote a family history book including birth dates of everyone ( no embarrassing stories ,though ) and gave it to relatives at a family holiday event , and two of them published them immediately online ! I still cringe when I see my name up there ! That person is deceased now and the company that has it up does not respond. Any ideas on how to approach this issue? I did not know if I should mention the company here on this comment form .

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If you wrote it, you own the copyright. Why not try sending a Digital Millennium Copyright Act notice to the hosting company?

  3. Lynn Palermo says:

    Perfect Judy, I just released a free family history interview guide and I say much the same thing. I’ll be sure to add this link for examples. Thanks Lynn.

  4. Gus Marsh says:

    Some of my cousins don’t care if they are in my books, others want to stay out. It really doesn’t bother me that much, I always say the hardest information to collect is the old information, from 1700′s and earlier. In my first book there was mention of one living person, in my second book there are two living people at this time.

  5. Jeff says:

    > Aunt Gertrude is never going to give you permission to include that story about the Christmas Party and dancing with the lampshade on her head … darn it

    So, that’s what the “G” stands for! Tell us, that was AFTER the spiked eggnog triple shot right?

  6. Rick says:

    Would you give the same advice in the instance where all the information you wish to publish about a living individual (especially one you don’t know) is compiled from publicly-available documents, such as newspaper articles and courthouse records?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I would, absolutely. Remember, this isn’t a matter of law, it’s a matter of ethics (and decent interpersonal behavior). And just plain good manners

  7. Very good information, Judy. Too often there are a few living individuals that slip into our written posts and stories, and we don’t even think twice about speaking to them to get their permission.

    What are your feelings about posting obituaries that have living family members? I have been guilty of posting those on my family blog as well as the blog I maintain for a school alumni group. I source the newspaper where the original is found, if available, but did not consider the living relatives.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      My own ethics would tell me to ask, even as to the folks named in the obituaries, and even if the obits are online somewhere else.

      • Thank you for your honest reply, Judy. If we think of the “privatizing” of our family trees, it’s really the same thing, isn’t it? This has been a good discourse for me at this time. I need to pull back and look hard at the things I think about posting.

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          We all need to pull back and think about what we post about living people, Judith. It’s good manners, if nothing else!

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