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Feb 3, 2021

Not Everything Online is Free

In the early days of the Internet in the 1990s, everything online was free. That is, all information posted online was available to everyone free of charge. Of course, in those days there wasn’t much information available that would have warranted a fee or a paid subscription. The brief information we found online in those days was generally worth just about what we paid for it: zero.

As the years went by and technology improved, many commercial companies found methods of providing more and more information online. The investment required to provide this information quickly escalated: paid authors, web servers, high speed Internet connectivity, disk farms and more all cost money. Those who made the investments necessary to provide highly relevant information expect to be reimbursed for their expenses. Most also expect to make a modest profit in the same manner as newspapers and magazines have done for more than a century. Few corporations function as a charity; most expect to pay their bills by charging for their products and services. The world of Internet publishing is no different from that of traditional publishing: the expenses are real and bills must be paid.

I am amazed at the folks still believe “everything on the Internet should be free.” Those who believe that are ignoring basic facts of business life. The problem is compounded when the discussion turns to the publishing of public domain information, such as birth records, marriage information, death records, pension application files, and more.

Comments posted to message boards, blogs and elsewhere often decry the “loss” of public domain information. Some misguided individuals even seem to believe that if a commercial company publishes information from the public domain and then slaps their own copyright on the web pages that the information is no longer public domain. Such assumptions are false and misguided.

In fact, information that was free in the past remains free today and will always be free. In the United States, this is dictated by Federal law. That is true now, it has always been true, and will always be true unless Congress changes the laws. Until then, public domain information will remain free to all of us in the same manner as always.

By Federal law, public domain information has always been available to all of us free of charge. All we ever had to do was to travel to the location where the information is available, be it in Washington, D.C. or some other archive. The information is free although we might have to pay a modest fee for photocopying. If we don’t want to pay a photocopying fee, we always have the option of transcribing it by hand. That free access is not changed by the simple act of some web site placing the information online. By Federal law, that information will continue to be available free of charge to anyone and everyone who wishes to travel to the location where the information resides. There is absolutely no change to this free access.

What *IS* changing is that we now have more methods of obtaining that information. While we can continue to access it at no charge in the old-fashioned way, we now have new avenues – specifically, online. Companies that seek out this free information and then invest a few hundred thousand dollars in scanners, servers, data centers, high speed (and expensive) connections to the Internet backbones, programmers, support personnel, and all the other expenses are allowed to charge a fee for that access. However, the old-fashioned, in-person free access remains exactly the same as before: free.

Let me draw an analogy: water is free. If I want water, I can go to the local river or lake with a bucket and get all the water I want at no charge. Another option is for me to place a barrel in my yard to capture rain water. I have always been able to obtain free water and I can still do so today, should I wish to do so. But if I elect to use a more convenient method, the local water company spends money laying pipes under the street and across my lawn to my house. I then have to pay a fee for that higher level of service. The same is true here: the genealogy information remains free, but most of us understand that we have to pay a fee for the expensive “pipes” that deliver that information conveniently to our homes at our convenience.

For me and for most other Americans, it is cheaper to pay for online access than it is to take a trip to Washington, D.C. or Salt Lake City or to some other library or repository as I used to do. Using one of the new online services actually REDUCES my expenses. I am very thankful that commercial services make the information available for a modest fee so that I no longer have to pay exorbitant travel expenses. (Have you priced automobile gasoline or airline tickets lately?)

I am appalled that some people apparently still expect a company to spend money gathering free records, spend money scanning it, spend money building data centers, spend money buying servers and disk farms, spend money on high-speed Internet connectivity, spend money for programmers, spend money on customer support personnel, and spend money on advertising to let you know that the information is available, and then expect that same company to make the information available free of charge!

One simple fact remains: those who spend money making information available to all of us are allowed to recover their expenses plus a reasonable profit. Those who wish to not pay for these “pipes” are free to obtain their information in the same manner that we have been obtaining it for decades. If you don’t care for the new option, simply use the old method. You are free to choose whatever you want, but please don’t complain about new, more convenient options that some of us appreciate.

Feb 3, 2021

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