FamilySearch: sharing is forever

FamilySearch terms of use

It used to be, just a few short weeks ago, that the major emphasis at was the records it digitizes and makes available to its users.

You would navigate to the website, and the very first thing you’d see would be the search box to take you into the millions and millions of images available to the genealogist there.

No longer.

Now the emphasis is on sharing. There are six rotating images at the landing page for the website and the first three, in order, are for making connections with an online fan chart, sharing memories by uploading and sharing photographs, and connecting generations by creating an online family tree.

Oh, the records are still there — thank heavens! — but the focus has shifted to the user and sharing of information among users.

And that means it’s time for a very careful look at the website’s terms of use. Terms of use, remember, are “the limits somebody who owns something you want to see or copy or use puts on whether or not he’ll let you see or copy or use it.”1

And when it comes to a site where sharing is involved, terms of use are also those pesky little sometimes-written-in-legal-jargon provisions saying what the website can do with anything you choose to upload.

For the most part, FamilySearch‘s terms of use are typical and ordinary and, for the most part, written in plain English.2 But there are a couple of provisions that should make us all stop and think.

The big one affects anything you choose to upload to the site:

In exchange for your use of this site and/or our storage of any data you submit, you hereby grant us an unrestricted, fully paid-up, royalty-free, worldwide, and perpetual license to use any and all information, content, and other materials (collectively, “Contributed Data”) that you submit or otherwise provide to this site (including, without limitation, genealogical data and discussions and data relating to deceased persons) for any and all purposes, in any and all manners, and in any and all forms of media that we, in our sole discretion, deem appropriate for the furtherance of our mission to promote family history and genealogical research. As part of this license, you give us permission to copy, publicly display, transmit, broadcast, and otherwise distribute your Contributed Data throughout the world, by any means we deem appropriate (electronic or otherwise, including the Internet). You also understand and agree that as part of this license, we have the right to create derivative works from your Contributed Data by combining all or a portion of it with that of other contributors or by otherwise modifying your Contributed Data.3

In plain English, by using the website and uploading anything — a photo, a story, any comments you share about an ancestor or about your research — you are giving FamilySearch an unlimited right to use what you’ve uploaded. It’s a license, meaning you do keep your own copyright in your own work, but it’s a license that allows FamilySearch to do just about everything that copyright law says you’re the only one who can do: copy it, display it, create derivative works from it, and modify it.

If you choose to upload something, you must understand that you are agreeing to allow it to be downloaded and used by everyone else who uses the website for their own personal noncommercial research, to be revised and included in the FamilySearch Wiki, to be used in training materials and similar purposes.

Your grant of permission is perpetual — meaning forever — and it’s unrestricted. You can’t come back later and say you didn’t mean it; you can’t object when someone else starts using that particular picture you uploaded of Great Aunt Tizzy; and you’re never going to be paid for anything you wrote and uploaded that ends up being the featured section of the FamilySearch Wiki.

Let’s be clear about this: there’s absolutely nothing wrong or underhanded about what FamilySearch is doing and it’s not hiding a thing. FamilySearch makes no bones about its purpose here — it wants people to collaborate and share:

You acknowledge that a primary purpose of this site is to enable collaboration between users of this site and other sites that wish to expand their genealogical databases and knowledge. You acknowledge that we may utilize Contributed Data that you submit, for the purpose of collaborating with other individuals and organizations (including commercial genealogical organizations), for example, in order to create a global common pedigree for the purposes of increasing participation in family history and preserving records throughout the world. You acknowledge that collaboration between multiple individuals and organizations allows us to obtain additional data that we may provide to users of this site—thus allowing users to extend their own ancestral lines.4

If that purpose doesn’t sit well with you — if you have qualms about seeing your words used by others or about other people downloading your family photos — don’t upload to FamilySearch. It’s as simple as that.

And, by the way, because you’re the one granting the license, if you do choose to upload, make sure you only upload things you have the right to share. The terms of use clearly say that you’re the one on the hook if you upload something that violates someone else’s legal rights:

You represent and warrant that you will not submit anything to this site that violates any third party’s rights (including, but not limited to, copyrights, privacy rights, publicity rights, contract rights, or other proprietary rights). Whenever you submit data to this site, you are affirming that you have the legal right to contribute that data to us and to grant us the rights and licenses set out in this Agreement. You accept legal responsibility for our use of your Contributed Data based on your affirmation. You are solely responsible for all Contributed Data that you post or otherwise contribute to this and any other FamilySearch affiliated site.5

Beyond the sharing issues, the other stop-and-think provision is right at the top: the site restricts its use to non-commercial purposes:

You may view, download, and print material from this site only for your personal, noncommercial use unless otherwise indicated. … You may not use this site or information found at this site (including the names and addresses of those who have submitted information) to sell or promote products or services, to solicit clients, or for any other commercial purpose.6

Uh-oh. What about professional genealogists, bloggers and genealogy speakers? Are we all violating the terms of use when we use images from FamilySearch in client reports, or as illustrations in a lecture or a blog post?

Not to worry. I posed those questions directly to FamilySearch and the answer is that these are permitted uses:

     • “Specifically, yes you may use the materials in client reports.”7

     • “Yes, you may use the materials as instructional illustrations (but not for promotional illustrations) in lectures.”8

And as to blog posts, I specifically clarified that some bloggers “have affiliate programs (if someone clicks through on a link on the website and buys a book, the blogger will get a small fee); sometimes the blogger sells his or her own works somewhere on the website; some bloggers take clients or do lectures for a fee and have information about those activities somewhere on the website.” Even on a blog like that, using images from FamilySearch to illustrate a point in a blog post is considered “limited illustrative use” and “is acceptable.”9

Bottom line: share with care, and if you’re a professional you can use the images for client reports and illustrations in blogs and lectures.


  1. Judy G. Russell, “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012 ( : accessed 12 May 2013).
  2. Terms of Use,” dated 4 June 2012, ( : accessed 12 May 2013).
  3. Ibid., “Licenses and Rights Granted to Us,” emphasis added.
  4. Ibid., “Collaboration with Others.”
  5. Ibid., “Right to Submit.”
  6. Ibid., “Licenses and Restrictions.”
  7. Email, Merlyn Doney, FamilySearch International, to the author, 3 May 2013.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
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36 Responses to FamilySearch: sharing is forever

  1. Concetta says:

    Thanks Judy for writing this up! You always make these things seem so much clearer. I had been contemplating uploading a tree at Family Search but will be discussing this information with my family, first.

    Thank you again!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment working on a family tree (by itself) for prior generations, Concetta. I would definitely not include anything on a living person — not a single thing — without that person’s consent.

  2. Dave says:

    I don’t object in principle to most of these terms of use, but there are two provisions that mean you’ll never see me uploading to FamilySearch. First, if I want to take something down that I put up then the right to distribute it should end at that point (I readily acknowledge nothing can be done about earlier distribution, and that’s as it should be).

    More important, though, is the very last clause: “…modifying your contributed data.” Uh, uh! If you want to change my stuff, you ask me first. I’m perfectly willing to allow corrections of facts, but if I have the copyright you don’t get the license to make any changes to it without further negotiations.

    Separately, why do all the sites right these terms so that we have to ask specifically about use by professionals? Is nobody capable of using plain English and spelling this out ahead of time? With all due respect, this is one of the primary reasons people don’t like lawyers!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I understand your concerns about modifications, Dave. I know the purpose of the language was specifically for inclusion in the Wiki where editing is necessary, and anyone who uploads must keep that in mind. As for the taking-something-down issue, I suspect it’s a simple matter of not being able to stuff the cat back in the bag once it’s out. And as for the legalese and lawyers, well, what can I say? We do have our own language… and mindset… that sometimes doesn’t work well with genealogy. I still think if the lawyers got out of the way and left the genealogists alone, GenealogyBank’s terms of use would be a lot better — and clearer — too.

  3. Michelle says:


    Thanks for the post.

    I hate to bring up a sensitive topic, but some of my clients have expressed concern over submitting the names of ancestors on FamilySearch because of the church’s history of baptizing posthumously.

    When you reviewed/discussed the terms of use, did this subject come up at all?


    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That issue is very clearly stated by the Terms of Use as well. Submissions for so-called Temple Ordinances (including baptism) are separate and “Users should only submit the names of individuals in their own family line, and should not submit the names of nonrelated persons for vicarious temple ordinances, including names of celebrities or famous people, or those gathered from unapproved extraction projects, such as Jewish Holocaust victims.”

  4. Toni says:

    I will never ever put anything on that web site again. What worries/annoys me is that the information I put there a couple of years ago will now be combined with the wrong people after I have so carefully sorted it out. I went there specifically to see what had happened with it and found a whole new mess very similar to the last mess. My tree will never be right because there are so many copies of the wrong family everywhere. I’ve done the best I can and I also have a public tree at ancestry but I can’t stop anyone from adding more children, wrong spouses, wrong parents, wrong place of residence/birth/death, obviously wrong dates and the list goes on. Familysearch trees are the worst thing to ever have happened to my genealogical research. How can they possibly think that everyone working on the same project will make it better? Have they never worked with a committee? I wish I would never have put anything on there and I wish I could take it off now. How can these new terms of use cover what was already there? Change the rules as the game plays out so that you are always the winner?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It’s your choice whether to participate or not, Toni, but while the experience with the trees may be frustrating, it doesn’t pose the same issues as actually uploading a document or photograph.

  5. Toni says:

    I forgot to say I no longer send anyone to familysearch and it’s gone pretty far down on my search list because of the new emphasis on sharing and because the original documents are now hosted by If I’m going to end up at ancestry -and pay there to see that document- I may as well start at and save myself a few clicks. Ditto for fold3 and what ever new site they’ve signed up with today. I’ll still be paying at each site. Maybe their next new thing will be a subscription site for access to their partner sites. Can you even guess what that would cost!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      For the record, only a small number of the documents are at Ancestry. The vast majority at FamilySearch are available right there.

  6. Jim Poole says:

    With so many options available now for individuals to put their information on the web without having to learn ‘geek stuff’- and just about all genealogy software programs include an automatic website generation program (simple-minded, true, but effective)- and “blog for free” sites are all over the web- and my web host even offers one of the free genealogy collaboration software apps in their application suite— with all that available, it’s hard to see why anyone would need to surrender their control to sites like Family Search. I urge everyone to look around a bit before assuming that the only way to achieve Internet collaboration & publication- “sharing”- of your research is through sites like Family Search.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      If the primary focus is sharing, and the individual doesn’t mind sharing without restrictions, then FamilySearch works as well as any site, Jim — and will probably reach more people than posting anywhere else. So this really is a “whatever floats your boat” situation. If folks don’t like the terms here, another site is definitely in order. But if they don’t mind the terms and want to reach lots of cousins, FamilySearch makes as much sense as any place does.

  7. Ginger Smith says:

    Thanks so much for going through this and for thinking about all the possibilities, including the family researcher, the professional genealogist, lecturer, and blogger. Well thought out as usual.

  8. Jim Poole says:

    Hey, I’m Family search neutral- neither “fer” nor “agin”. But it is clear from your responders, above, that they do give some folks ‘heartburn’, and the point I was making was that it is not necessary to go against your reservations & join to gain all the benefits of web sharing.

    There have been a lot of recent technical advances in web access that have not been fully digested by the genealogy community, many of which make ‘portal’ sites like Family Search less dominant. And, the ubiquity of the search engine has made the physical site location of information much less important these days. Spend some time around younger users of the Internet- they type ‘Ebenezer Scrooge genealogy’ into a search bar on their smart phone, and click on the interesting sites listed- they don’t think- gosh, better go to Famous Genealogy site and search for Ebenezer’s family..

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You’re absolutely right about the technological changes, Jim. What makes FamilySearch so important to me is the records, and I’m not sure they’re going to show up in that ‘Ebenezer Scrooge genealogy’ search.

      • MF Pedersen says:

        Records: That is a keyword in your statement.

        When someone adds or detracts to a record already posted with “records” and proof of documentation, new records and documentation should be posted along with the addition or the detraction to prove the “new” information.

        I am really upset with FamilySearch now…I loved…sorry to see the Church sell it.

        It is very hard to do the family temple names …thinking you are finished with a family…and find SOMEONE has added more names to the “list” with NO documentation.! ! !

        I have worked very hard all of these years and to find someone in a few minuets have CHANGED MY RECORDS really blows my mind……

        Something needs to be done. AND soon…

  9. I really like the idea of FamilySearch Family Tree because of the collaboration that will be possible. Right now, someone can just copy info from my tree to their tree on my and Rootsweb WorldConnect trees and not ever contact me. At least with FamilySearch, I will be able to set a “watch” on my ancestor and collaborate with the people who make changes. I am curious as to what will happen on FamilySearch when two cousins disagree about great-great-great-grandpa’s death date. Will they just keep changing it back and forth, since anyone can change an individual ancestor’s information at FamilySearch?

    As for photos, though, I’m more cautious about using FamilySearch. Before you posted this, I had already decided not to upload any photos of any individuals who are living. Now that you have highlighted the terms, I’m definitely not posting any living photos. I post photos of living people on my tree because no one from the general public can view them. From the most recent Legacy Family Tree webinar I watched about FamilySearch Family Tree, the photos of living people are available to the general public (though their info, such as birth dates/places, is not public). Is that your understanding too?

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      As far as I know, you’re right, Jennifer. NO information about living people (though I believe you can see yourself, your spouse and your children).

  10. Lisa Marker says:

    Wow. This is exactly the reason why I will not ever post a tree on, and now add Familysearch to that list. Once you post information, it belongs to them.
    It’s really too bad, because the whole culture of genealogy is/should be about sharing, and I am more reluctant to do so as time is passing.

  11. Nancy says:

    I hadn’t read FamilySearch’s terms yet and am grateful to read their terms and your explanations of them. Great clarification.

    I haven’t read Ancestry’s, either (and don’t have a tree there) but I wonder how different their terms are to FamilySearch’s terms.

    This was a very helpful post. Thank you, Judy.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Ancestry is on my list for the future, Nancy!

      • Lisa Marker says:

        I am glad to hear that. I have an as-yet-unmet cousin who would like to post on Ancestry the photos that I have, and would normally like to share with him. I am now very reluctant to share, because I don’t want him to post the photos on Ancestry. I would like to hear your take, Judy, on Ancestry’s terms of use. Thanks so much!!

  12. Katie says:

    Great post and fun interactions in the comments. When you inquired about the commercial exceptions, did they give any indication of editing the terms to specify those exceptions? I’m happy to take your communication with them at face value, but legally speaking, your post is not the binding force when I agree to their terms of use. ;)

  13. Connie says:

    Please clarify this phrase “you can’t object when someone else starts using that particular picture you uploaded of Great Aunt Tizzy.”

    How does my giving FamilySearch an unrestricted license allow “someone else” (meaning every Tom, Dick or Harry) to use Aunt Tizzy’s photo (or my words) without attribution? I understand Family Search can use it however they like, but I’m not granting unrestricted use privileges to every user of FamilySearch. Or am I? [Practical issues of what will actually happen put aside, of course.]

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      FamilySearch has stated that its purpose in writing the broad language is to secure for itself and its users the right to reuse the materials.

  14. Marla Larson says:

    Family Tree is a collaborative effort which I use all the time and am grateful that we can finally make the needed changes. You will still want to use a personal database, for example,I use Legacy.

    We are not encouraged to add photos or stories of living people, which means I won’t be adding my grandparents family photos from their golden wedding celebration, although it’s been more than fifty years ago, because there are still living people in the photos.

    The idea of sharing photos and stories is so we can see and read the stories of our deceased ancestors. You will only see living people on Family Tree for three reasons: 1. If you are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, your name will automatically show up even the first time you go to your tree. You will also see your spouse, children, parents and grandparents. (I am not sure about great grandparents, grandchildren, etc.) 2. You will see the records of any living individuals that you have added personally. Say Aunt Tilly is still living and you added her to the tree. You will see her record, but no one else will see her information. 3. Some people are not as careful as they should be, so on occasion living people are listed as deceased. This can be taken care of by Family Search Support and the living person can be taken off. As for the Temple Ordinances, church members are supposed to get permission from the closest living relative for anyone born in the last 110 years. Some people disregard this rule, but FamilySearch will not hesitate to ban people who do not follow the rules from using their sight.

    I will not hesitate to share the photos and stories of my deceased ancestors because my goal is not to make money off from them. I have already found stories and pictures that I had never seen before.

    I hope this post makes sense. If not I will blame it on my Cub Scouts who had a good case of Summeritis today.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      The post makes perfect sense and offers a different point of view, for which I’m grateful.

  15. As usual, Judy, your explanation is crystal clear. I have seen other blogs on this topic, but you are so thorough that I feel fully informed. I’m glad you asked them about blogs, in case I every participate in their sharing.

    Not that I’m a sharer in this sense. I build and run an Ancestry family tree for most of my relatives, and it’s a private tree. Part of it extends to living people — which was useful in our family reunion last year. My family members all wanted a private tree, so we have one.

    It’s enough “public sharing” for me that anything I write on my blog posts can apparently be googled until the end of time. So I write nothing that I wouldn’t say to a crowd on the town green.

    It’s amazing to see how we are gradually negotiating copyrights and privacy issues on the internet. It seems that a fluid transition is in progress, and I wonder what it will be like 10 years from now.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      You are soooooooo right that concepts of rights and privacy are changing daily because of the Internet. I also wonder what the future holds… next week, not just next decade!

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  17. Linda Jones says:

    While this blog and comments centered on I would bet money that, while I haven’t waded through the legalese, other sites like or have the same terms.

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  19. Gus Marsh says:

    Thanks a million for this link Judy. Most of my ancestors are gone and the living don’t want me to put any of their names up on FamiySearch.

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