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Say, would you mind…?

(Note: This issue came up again in the discussions after yesterday’s blog post on taking the work of others without crediting them. It’s another side to the ethical issues we deal with, and this post from last year is repeated as The Legal Genealogist‘s take on it.)

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 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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