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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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