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Chill out, please

A month has gone by since the announcement that the popular website Find A Grave had been sold to — and the sturm und drang over the acquisition just will not go away.1

FAGThe Legal Genealogist truly isn’t sure what has folks so riled up about this.

Frankly, I’m about three-quarters convinced that if Ancestry were suddenly to turn non-profit and make every last one of its records available absolutely free, somebody out there would still find something to complain about — just because it’s Ancestry.

It’s like that old joke told years ago during one unpopular presidential administration (and resurrected often since then) that if the occupant of the White House were to get up one morning and walk across the Potomac River, the newspaper headlines would read: “Proof that President can’t swim!”

Case in point: a reader question that arrived in my mailbox yesterday.

The reader quoted a Facebook message by someone else that he or she had encountered a new hint in an Ancestry search — a reference to a Find A Grave entry that person had created. And the person complained, “They continue to try to ‘sell me’ back my own research data.” That led the reader to ask: “Everything on was freely contributed by people before bought Findagrave, and Ancestry is taking stuff from us without paying–but we can’t take stuff from Ancestry without paying. Is there a lawsuit in Ancestry’s future?”

Um… no.

Everybody who contributed to Find A Grave did so in order to share information with others, right? And we all did so with two essential understandings:

• We were perfectly happy to give Find A Grave the right to use — display, share, make available to others — what we contributed, but Find A Grave wouldn’t claim any ownership of our contributions.

• Access to the site would remain free.

No other promises were ever made to us as Find A Grave contributors.

Nobody ever said, for example, that you’d never be able to find a link to a Find A Grave entry by doing a Google search. Nobody ever promised us that users of the FamilySearch website wouldn’t see a link to that same entry in doing a name search there.

And nobody ever promised us that an Ancestry subscriber wouldn’t get the same opportunity to click through from Ancestry to a Find A Grave entry.

And for the life of me I can’t figure out what could possibly be wrong with allowing every other genealogy site in the world to link to Find A Grave entries. Doing so makes the information findable by more people. Which, it seems to me, is the reason why Find A Grave was created in the first place.

So… to the reader’s question — and, more importantly, the reader’s premises.

Is Ancestry taking stuff from us without paying? No. We gave Find A Grave the right to display our contributions; Find A Grave is now owned by Ancestry. Terms of the sale were not disclosed, but for us, the users, the terms that matter are that Ancestry will continue to keep the site up and running. And it’s going to put financial resources into improving it, including development of a mobile app.

Is Ancestry selling us back our own research? No. We can still access our own contributions without ever going onto Ancestry’s subscription site. Let’s repeat, one more time, the promise by Ancestry CEO Tim Sullivan:

We will maintain Find A Grave as a free website, will retain its existing policies and mode of operation, and look forward to working with Jim Tipton and the entire Find A Grave team to accelerate the development of tools designed to make it even easier for the Find A Grave community to fulfill its original mission to capture every tombstone on Earth.2

Is there a lawsuit in Ancestry’s future? For what? For keeping Find A Grave alive? For putting resources into future development? For keeping access to the site free and all of its existing policies and operations in place?

During the years I was in active practice as a lawyer I wrote a lot of complaints. But I’d be hard pressed to figure out what exactly to sue for here. I’d be laughed out of court if I filed a complaint asking a court to find that Ancestry shouldn’t be allowed to let its subscribers use Find A Grave even though it’s letting everyone else in the world access it for free.

No, no lawsuit here.

If, down the road, Ancestry goes back on its word and closes the site to everyone except its subscribers, and doesn’t let contributors remove their materials then, then we can talk about lawsuits.

In the meantime… seriously … being the 600-pound gorilla of the genealogy subscription sites isn’t illegal.

Let’s all chill out for now, okay?


  1. The German term sturm und drang literally means “storm and stress.” It’s defined as “a late 18th century German literary movement characterized by works containing rousing action and high emotionalism that often deal with the individual’s revolt against society.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 5 Nov 2013), “sturm und drang.”
  2. LLC Acquires Find A Grave, Inc.,” Press Releases, posted 30 Sep 2013 ( : accessed 3 Oct 2013).
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