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Genealogically speaking…

The Legal Genealogist can usually get through 18 months to two years before the issue heats up to boiling again.

But it’s boiling over in some online discussion groups so … once more into the breach…

You know what the issue is.

It’s one that keeps coming up, over and over, throughout the genealogical community.

It’s one that’s been addressed here, more than once, in the past.1

It starts with someone posting an inquiry somewhere online.

It seems perfectly innocent.

It’s just a request for help, and helping is something we do here in the genealogical community, right?

“There’s an Important Document about my family on Subscription Website that I’d like to have but I’m not a subscriber,” the inquiry begins. “Would someone who is a subscriber please get it for me?”

No free lunch

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 Subscription 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, TNSTAAFL.

Which of course means There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Not in genealogy any more than in other areas of life.

We may not like it, but 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.

Subscription 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.2 These are contract rules, under contract law and not copyright law, so it really doesn’t matter whether the item is in or out of copyright.3

And that contract is 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. Subscription 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 Subscription Website for our own research. Sometimes that includes research we’re hired to do for others (which is why you will see documents from Ancestry, for example, in genealogy reports written for clients, because Ancestry’s terms of service allow that), but particularly with some of the online newspaper sites, it’s limited to just our own personal research only.

So before we ask someone to violate the terms of service of Subscription Website, we need to think about the issue in terms of the ethics involved:

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 me?

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 Subscription Websites, before there even was an internet.

So if I ask, just say no, okay? It’s wrong.

Because, really, we need all those Subscription Websites… and There’s No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Reprise: TNSTAAFL,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 20 Jan 2022).


  1. See, e.g., Judy G. Russell, “Just say no,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 14 Nov 2013, “It bears repeating: just say no,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 5 Nov 2014, and, most recently, “TNSTAAFL,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 11 Dec 2020 ( : accessed 20 Jan 2022).
  2. For a review of what terms and conditions are and what they mean, see ibid., “A terms of use intro,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 27 Apr 2012.
  3. For that issue, see ibid., “Contract, not copyright,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Feb 2021.
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