Thursday, September 2, 2010

Content Wars - my thoughts

Thomas MacEntee has posted Open Thread Thursday: The Content Wars on the Geneabloggers blog for discussion. He wants to know what readers think about four issues (Questions in red, my responses in blue):

1) Once a collection of documents is digitized and indexed, should they be made available to researchers for free or for fee? This means they would either follow the FamilySearch (free) or the Ancestry (fee) models. Note: there are many other vendors and providers both free and fee – I am only using the most recognizable vendors as examples.

RS: It is up to the owner of the document collection and whatever contract or license agreement made between the owner and the digitizer/indexer (if they are not the same entity). Collecting, preserving, organizing, digitizing and indexing cost money to perform, and the contract should define the ultimate form of the online document collection, whether it is to be free or fee, and the length of the time period for it to be accessible. There is no law that says "online genealogy data has to be free for access and downloading or copying." Every entity has to make the free or fee decision for themselves, based on their mission and costs.

2) Does it matter if the documents themselves are in the public domain when it comes to charging a fee for access? Does a good index and search mechanism add value to the record set, to the point of justifying a fee for access?

RS: No it doesn't. "Public domain" as I understand it means that there is no copyright holder. The holder of the documents can choose to hide the documents from private or public view, or make them freely available, or any other decision between hidden and open. Charging a fee for access, or providing the documents under contract or license to a company that charges a fee for access is solely the document holder's decision. A good index and search engine also costs money to create, test, improve and provide and does add value to a record set, and does justify a fee for access.

3) Think about the holdings that genealogical or historical societies have. Should they place access behind a members-only website, even if the documents are in the public domain? What about making the index free but the images members-only?

RS: The decision to provide access to the holdings of a genealogical or historical society is solely up to the society. "Public domain" documents can be owned by a person or an entity like a society, and they should choose their access rules. Some societies keep document collections in paper format only in their repository, some digitize and index them, some provide the digitized records behind a member-only firewall, some make the document collection publicly available for a fee or for free. Ownership or licensing of the documents is what is important, not copyright issues, although copyright issues may restrict what a society can offer online. A wise and enterprising society would create an index of their records, post the index on the Internet, and say "hey come on down, we have what you want" in an effort to gain members or subscriptions.

4) Let’s say that 20 years from now, most records of use to genealogists are digitized and accessible – either free or fee. What will genealogy vendors need to offer consumers to keep them engaged in genealogy? What will genealogical societies need to do to survive if their public domain holdings are made available for free?

RS: Genealogy vendors will have to continue to offer consumers (customers) something of value for their fees or subscriptions - continue to add content, continue to improve indexing, continue to improve search capabilities, continue to try to connect researchers to each other. Once a vendor stops adding content or improving their product, they will lose customers and market share, especially if another vendor is more innovative, or adds more or better content.

RS: In order to survive, genealogical societies need to broaden their member services, in terms of more or better programs, classes, printed or website information, in-house and online database access, and more member-to-member interaction. Successful societies in the 21st century offer programs and classes that help members deal with beginning research, different record types, online record access, and one-on-one mentoring. They need to make wise business decisions about their owned or licensed database collections, and offer them to their members, and the larger genealogical community, in ways that serve the needs of the society.

In these questions, there is the underlying idea that "public domain" means that the document should be freely available to whoever finds it, wherever they find it. That is not the case in our free market, capitalist society. Repositories and companies have acquired the collections by contract or license, and therefore can dictate the access and use of the collection, and charge fees if they wish. Local, state or national governments that have document collections do not have to make them available for free, even if taxpayer dollars or user fees paid for collecting them. The facts are not copyrightable, but the records are obtainable for a fee.

Almost every document collection offered by an organization or a company for a fee is available (perhaps for a fee) in its original form (or in a microform) from a repository (library, archive, agency, etc.). The problem is that the researcher has to find out where the document is held, how to access it, travel to access it (or pay someone to access it), and then make a transcription, abstract, extraction, digital image or photocopy of the document. What the commercial companies offer is the ability to access and capture records in a less costly and time consuming way, for a fee. An U.S. subscription costs about 42 cents a day, and less than $3 a week. If you use it often, it is an excellent bargain.

So the researcher has choices:

1) To travel to distant repositories to find the information they need in paper or microform format

2) To subscribe to one or more commercial database providers and obtain the information at their home (or at a local library) fairly quickly.

* To sit back and loudly complain about the terrible companies making a profit or the government hiding public information.

If it wasn't for the commercial database providers, there would be a lot less online access to document collections because non-profit repositories and government offices are a lot less nimble and proactive, and in times of economic distress they cut back on public services and raise fees on existing services. The National Archives has digitizing and indexing contracts with a number of commercial companies (e.g., Ancestry, Footnote) or non-profit entities, e.g., FamilySearch) in order to bring document collections online faster. These contracts specify free access within the National Archives facilities, and access for a fee outside of the buildings. My guess is that we will see many more of these types of arrangements as data collections are digitized and indexed.

I recently saw the comment by Gordon Clarke of FamilySearch that only 5% of all genealogy documents are digitized at this point in time. There is a long way to go before "everything," or even 50% of "everything," is digitized. Even if FamilySearch successfully digitizes and indexes every one of their microfilms, microfiches and books, there is still a wealth of genealogical material held by individuals, local, regional or national societies, state and national archives, and private companies to find, access, extract from, and use.

My two cents... what's yours?

UPDATED: 3 PM: Added a bot of content, and made editorial corrections.


Elyse Doerflinger said...

Randy -

I 100% agree with you. It does come down to the agreement the company has with the owner of the documents, whether that be a government agency or private person.

Of course I would love it if these documents are free, but simply because it would mean that I could access more records. But it doesn't mean that I expect that. I know that there are costs involved in obtaining, scanning, indexing, and then hosting them on a website.

Charles said...

I agree mostly, the putting records behind the firewall may attract members from afar, but few of our local members ever use our local records.
Also in copying some records we have the people that supplied them said they never wanted them on the internet or even on a CD, and I know the LDS also has some records they can not digitize yet due to copyright concerns, so I will bet not all records will ever be digitized and online.

Lynn Palermo said...

I agree with you as well. I have no problem paying my ancestry fees, my research would not be where it is today without the online access. I just do not have the time, or money for the travel and research.
However, I also understand that not all records will be digitized in our lifetime, either due to copyright laws or just plain volume vs. time and therefore some legwork will be required on my part.
Genealogy is a hobby for some, a religion for others, but it is a business. It may not have started that way but there is no denying it now.
We have to accept that the face of genealogy has changed, from both the researchers perspective and the document owners perspective.

Geolover said...

Randy, thanks for the interesting post.

I mostly agree with you, but one caveat is that not all historic records (say, up to the 1940s) held by U. S. Counties have been microfilmed.

In addition, when LDS was doing the bulk of its microfilming, agreements with the records-holders could not have anticipated such an entity as the internet, and this may pose difficulties in some parts of the new digitization project. One such difficulty is privacy-related legislation enacted by States.

You say, "I recently saw the comment by Gordon Clarke of FamilySearch that only 5% of all genealogy documents are digitized at this point in time."

Has anyone asked Mr. Clarke where this figure comes from? Was he referring to a percentage of microfilmed documents held by LDS?

I would have estimated far less, considering such factors as that for the U. S. only MD has digitized an appreciable quantity of land and (pre-1777) estate records and only WV has digitized an appreciable proportion of vital records from its Counties including many of the earliest surviving ones. 'Digitized' in these instances means " . . . and uploaded to the internet."

Does Mr. Clarke include items 'digitized' in CD format, those available on the internet, or?

Eileen said...

I totally agree with you. I would like to add to this a clarification.

You said: "Local, state or national governments that have document collections do not have to make them available for free, even if taxpayer dollars or user fees paid for collecting them. The facts are not copyrightable, but the records are obtainable for a fee."

We keep saying document fee but actually federal documents are free. What you are paying for is the service of finding, copying and getting a copy of it to you. You can avoid the fee by getting it yourself. I am sure this is true of other respositories.

You are paying for convenience just as you do when you go to the grocery store. And I'm all for it.