The well publicized squabble between Ancestry.com and U.S. GenWeb Project (USGenWeb), in my opinion, has hurt both. But perhaps the greatest damage has been suffered by USGenWeb and has been of its own doing.
USGenWeb is an unincorporated non-profit association of volunteers that maintain a set of geographically organized web sites. Separate, but linked, web sites exist for every county and state in the country. The binding philosophy among all these non-commercial web sites is, "Keeping Internet Genealogy Free." Many had made use of RootsWeb's free genealogy web site hosting service. When Ancestry.com acquired RootsWeb, they continued the program, despite dire predictions by some that Ancestry.com would discontinue it.
The squabble arose when Ancestry.com announced that the RootsWeb.com address was being automatically replaced with RootsWeb.Ancestry.com and that mandatory headers would be automatically added to the free genealogical web sites hosted by RootsWeb. For some sites, the headers were merely a change from the mandatory top and bottom advertisements that Ancestry.com added to the sites. For USGenWeb sites, the headers were new.
While the organization's bylaws allowed "a website [to] acknowledge any entities who may host their website (i.e., provide server space at no cost)" (Article IX, Section 2.), some web site coordinators feared the worst. (See this post or this for a couple of examples.) USGenWeb sites contain genealogical data gathered through thousands of hours of volunteer work. The mere specter of Ancestry.com assimilating these contributions led some web site coordinators to move their sites off RootsWeb. Even the national site made a quick decision to move off RootsWeb, temporarily using a private server donated by a member before moving the site to IX web hosting.
"After many years at RootsWeb, we made a quick move to another option for web hosting," Mike St. Clair, USGenWeb Advisor Board Member later reported. He advised the board that, "a more organized evaluation of the options available would be useful before we decide to confirm that quick decision for the longer term."
Those sites that have moved have spent focus and time on the task, and many are still not finished. (See for examples, ILGenWeb, Town of Essex and the Kidz Project.) Changing URLs have produced broken links, upsetting easy navigation among sites, and cutting off some outside traffic.
I just experienced a case in point
Visiting the Peabody Essex Museum's web site, I found the Phillips Library page on featured collections highlighted Essex County (Massachusetts) genealogy. The web site referred interested persons to "RootsWeb" for more information. Don't bother clicking the link, it points to www.rootsweb.com/~maessex, a dead URL. I know because I clicked the link.
When I found the link was dead, I assumed the link was to the RootsWeb resource page for Essex County, so I searched RootsWeb and noticed a link to www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~macessex. That URL, differing by just the letter "c" surely was related, so I followed the link.
The address was for the USGenWeb Project's Essex City, Essex County site, so the Peabody's bad link must have been to a USGenWeb site. According to the Internet Archive, it was. The site was active from as far back as 18 August 2000, when it was part of the RootsWeb Genealogical Data Cooperation or GenConnect, until as recently as 24 December 2007, when it was part of USGenWeb.
Well, I was sitting on the Essex City web site. It should have been a simple matter to get to the county. I just clicked on the link to the county and...
...I was back to the dead URL www.rootsweb.com/~maessex. I used a search engine to locate the Essex County site at http://essexcountymagenweb.com, although http://essexcountyma.net will work as well. There, I found the address of the Massachusetts state web site had changed from www.rootsweb.com/~magenweb to http://magenweb.bettysgenealogy.org.
What a mess. And so I suppose it goes across the width and breadth of the U.S. GenWeb Project.
Pages spurned, Lessons Learned
From what I think I've learned from this experience, I would offer the following advice to the U.S. GenWeb Project:
- Domain names should be uniform (http://cc.ss.usgenweb.org) and centrally controlled. State and county coordinators would still arrange for their own web hosting and the national organization would set the DNS address to resolve to the current host. A site could change web hosting services and one DNS change by the national organization would heal all links to the site.
- Keeping data free is easier than preventing commercial exploitation. Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement learned this the hard way when firms commercialized free software he developed. This led to the development of such copyleft copyright licenses as GPL and Creative Commons. Scientists in the Creative Commons project have abandoned attempts to prevent commercial exploitation in order to achieve their primary goal of keeping scientific data free. USGenWeb should likewise reexamine the relative importance of making data available for free versus preventing commercial exploitation of that data.
- Copyright provides very little protection to USGenWeb data. While the documents as a whole on USGenWeb web sites and in the archives are copyrighted, it is by no means clear if the data in those documents are protected. There are plenty of legal justifications for anyone that wanted to "harvest" that data. The U.S. Copyright Office says, "What is not protected? ... Information that is common property [such as] lists or tables taken from public documents or other common sources." (Circular #1, p. 3.) See also, "Can You Copyright Your [Genealogy] Data," and "7th Circuit Rules that Extraction of Public Domain Data from Copyright-Protected Database Is Not Copyright Infringement." Ultimately, the decision would require judicial interpretation. An unfunded volunteer cooperative would be no legal match for a determined, cash-rich corporation. If USGenWeb is intent on preventing commercial exploitation of its data, it should seek the advice of a nationally recognized Intellectual Property (IP) lawyer. Law schools may be the place to find individuals sympathetic to their cause.
- The transition away from RootsWeb would have been a great time to convert the USGenWeb Project to wiki format. Site coordinators that were moving their sites anyway could have moved the content into wiki pages. Other coordinators who had to update links to the sites that moved, could have moved their sites or simply changed the links to point to the appropriate wiki pages. A consistent page naming scheme would allow all coordinator to know what the wiki page URL would be. For sites that didn't move, wiki pages could be created with links out to the appropriate web site. Site copyrights would become page copyrights. Or members could entertain placing the copyrights in the national organization. Editing rights could be restricted to current coordinators, or opened up to any registered member. Templates could be used to encourage uniform layouts by desired groups of coordinators.
In fairness, I should write about Ancestry.com mistakes in their relationship with the USGenWeb project. I envision a piece outlining how they should have engaged the entire free genealogy community from the moment they bought RootsWeb. That's going to take hours to write. And they still don't have it right. And it's late. And I'm off to bed, so if you have an opinion, leave a comment.