Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Copyright, Contracts, Commitments, and Human Decency

I received a royalty check from the National Genealogical Society (NGS) on 20 April 2019.

Cool, right? I am making money, and all I have to do is sit back and let the cash roll in!

The problem with that concept of "free money" is that the National Genealogical Society had nothing of mine to sell. So what was producing royalty checks? Unfortunately, I had an idea. And I didn't like it.

A few computer keystrokes were all it took to confirm my fears. Lectures that I had delivered for the National Genealogical Society's yearly conferences in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2017; and Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2018; were recorded and presented for sale by NGS. Many speakers opt for their presentations to be sold in this manner. I do not.

There is this little contract provision found in both of my 2017 and 2018 documents that states "I do not want any of my lectures to be recorded." The bold is not my addition. It is written as such in the contract.

I would never consider myself a hot head. I rarely act out irrationally in a fit of passion. Trust me, I learned to be incredibly patient with people after a quarter-of-a-century as a veterinarian. One learns to find their internal happy place when berated by pet owners with unrealistic expectations, or to be a source of calm and reason when pet owners are justifiably upset with their fur baby's health issues.

But yeah, I was angry.

I understand that errors occur. I understand that something as simple as checking the wrong box or adding my name to the wrong list allowed my lecture to be inadvertently recorded. I understand that there was no malicious intent to make money off my hard work. But even the most innocent of errors have consequences, and as an independent researcher, lecturer, and author, who has to pay his mortgage by genealogical research and lecturing, these are very significant consequences indeed.

There's also this little thing called copyright. defines it as "the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or artistic work, whether printed, audio, video, etc." Sadly, genealogists are absolutely the worst at respecting copyright law. They are the masters of the cut-and-paste, presenting work as their own and never crediting the author or researcher who spent years of time, effort, and money producing a masterful work of reason, logic, and analysis. It is such a pervasive problem that Judy Russell has covered it repeatedly in her popular blog "The Legal Genealogist." Books have been written about copyright exclusively for the genealogist. It's a big deal. A really, really big deal.

I immediately sent an email to the long-standing conference manager employed by NGS voicing my displeasure, hoping that my email would make it to the powers-that-be for some sort of resolution.

What does resolution mean to me?

Let me repeat. I am a reasonable human being. Sure, I want to be compensated in some manner for the improper reproduction and sale of my work. Sure, I think there should be some sort of penalty or remuneration for repeated breaches of contract. But remember, I am a genealogist. I gave up a life of monetary riches when I decided to chase dead people full time and abandon my medical profession. This was not an opportunity for me to see dollar signs rolling in my eyes like some sort of Warner Brothers cartoon. Not by any means. So what do I think would have been an appropriate response?

"Oh my God, we made a HUGE mistake! And we did it two years in a row! Yikes! We are so sorry! What can we do to fix this?"

In a world torn apart by divisiveness and nasty rifts borne out of race, religion, and politics, human decency goes a long, long, long way with me.

What did I receive?

Yes, I got an apology. Kind of.

I got an apology for being sent a royalty check.

Ummmm.... okay. That wasn't quite what I was looking for. This was followed by an explanation that only a handful of my lectures were sold, so it was no big deal. Get over it.

Remember that silly thing called copyright? It is apparently so important to the National Genealogical Society that it is mentioned twice on their website regarding Social Media Policy for Conference Attendees. "NGS does not permit photography nor audio or video recording in the lecture rooms at the NGS Family History Conference. Presentations, including slides and handouts, are protected by copyright and may not be reproduced." This is followed by encouraging a social media presence by conference attendees as long as "copyright law is observed." NGS conference organizers have in the past required speakers to include a slide in their presentations reminding attendees of this policy. They also have a script at every podium for speakers to read out loud regarding this policy before even beginning their lecture. In the past, NGS has threatened to remove attendees from sessions if they are caught snapping photographs of a presenter's slides.

It seems then that copyright should be a big deal for this organization, yes? Apparently it is not when they are the offenders.

Not pleased with a curt dismissal, I wrote again to the National Genealogical Society on 28 April 2019, asking for resolution -- not for excuses, dismissal, or denials. This time the entire Board of Directors was addressed. I also expressed reservations doing further business with them until this matter was resolved.

The tricky part? I was already contractually obliged to present two lectures and two luncheons for the 2019 National Genealogical Society's annual conference in St. Charles, Missouri, to be held 8-11 May 2019. I had spent many hours preparing a brand new lecture for this event, as well as producing a never-seen-before luncheon talk. National conferences are a wonderful way to reconnect with old friends and colleagues, as well as to meet new people willing and eager to chat for hours about musty records, remote repositories, crumbling tombstones, out-of-print finding aids, DNA findings, and long dead people. I was excited to do some book signings for the chapter I wrote in the recently-published Advanced Genetic Genealogy: Techniques and Case Studies. This conference had been on my calendar for a year, and I was prepared to drive twelve hours round trip to attend and speak even though I was scheduled to arrive home from a speaking gig in Santa Rosa, California, just the day before hitting the road to Missouri. Additionally, I had obligations to two additional respected organizations to give luncheons that they had generously sponsored. I am not going to lie. The thought of doing further business with an organization presently treating me so poorly was not topping my list of favorite things to do, but at least the conference's rapid approach might stimulate some sort of discussion and pathway to resolution on the part of NGS before I had to hop in my car for a six-hour trek to St. Charles.

I was wrong.


Loud, deafening, telling silence. That was the response I received.

The beginning of May found me at the annual Ohio Genealogical Society Conference in Mason, Ohio. Those of us who give genealogical lectures are a relatively small group. We see each other all over the country, so much so that none of us can remember when and where the last meeting occurred. "Was that Burbank? Or Columbus? Or Fort Wayne? I can't recall. But hey, how are you?" I have already told you that I think myself to be a reasonable, level-headed man. But I also like to talk to my friends and colleagues. And I am an easy read. Sad, frustrated, angry, confused, happy, joyful: it's incredibly easy to tell what I am feeling, and I am profoundly transparent in my conversations. There's little in my life I won't share with others who ask (or sometimes don't ask). Many of the speakers and vendors got an earful regarding my present dilemma. Not so surprisingly, I also got my share of many, many "this is how NGS screwed me over" stories from other genealogists and vendors. I also got shared outrage. Misery certainly does love company.

The most surprising thing to come out of my lecturing in Ohio was the one most unexpected. That being an ongoing, daily string of information from colleagues and organizations that they were being actively recruited to fill my lecture and luncheon time slots at the NGS 2019 Conference. Apparently, NGS's solution to the problem at hand was to remove me from the program without any form of communication. This is what would be classically called the "You can't quit. You're fired!" move. It seems that they expected me to show up in St. Charles, Missouri, to inform me that my services were no longer needed. A curt dismissal would have angered me, but I didn't even get the benefit of that. So now we can add a third year in the row that NGS has failed to live up to their contractual obligations, as well as depriving me of income that I rely on to make ends meet.

Still, I got only silence.

Why am I writing this? There are multiple reasons.

Firstly, as genealogists, lecturers, and conference attendees, I think you all should know the duplicitous nature currently employed by the National Genealogical Society. Their actions indicate that copyright law seems to be only applicable when and where it inconveniences them the least. Additionally, those who continue to do business with NGS or will be asked to lecture or vend at the 2020 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, might want to take pause and rethink their decisions based on my experiences. Contracts are apparently meaningless slips of paper. I have been humbled by the outpouring of support by my genealogical colleagues, whether that be messages stating "stand your ground!" or the refusal by other speakers to fill my lecture slots in St. Charles out of a unified principled stance. I truly love those who share this insane genealogical obsession with me.

Secondly, I like to think that those who see me lecture can sense my passion for genealogy as well as my exuberant joy in sharing my knowledge and teaching. I deeply regret disappointing those who came to St. Charles, Missouri, expecting to see me lecture or those who paid additional money to attend a luncheon that I will not be presenting. I want all those wonderful genealogists presently in Missouri to know I am there with them in all their totally geeked-out, genealogy-everywhere-around-them wonder and joy in thought and spirit. I wanted to be there bodily and in person. I truly did. Those who showed up at a lecture or a luncheon or book signing expecting to see me deserve to know why I am not there.

Thirdly, take a look at those serving on the Board of Directors for the National Genealogical Society at If you happen to run into any of them in the conference halls in St. Charles, Missouri, you might want to ask them what copyright infringement and contractual obligation means to them. Maybe you will get an answer. If so, let me know, I still I have not. Or perhaps snap some photos of some slides during one of their lectures and question them with bewildered amazement when they seemed perturbed or upset at your audacity to flaunt the law.

Fourthly, for loyal readers of this blog, you know writing is cathartic for me. From my father's suicide to my flooded library to my present frustrations, I gain some sort of calm by putting it all in writing. I gave a luncheon talk in Ohio about the benefits of genealogical blogging, and I felt like a fraud because I have been on hiatus for so long. I had mentioned that in addition to telling the story of my maternal grandfather (which will be told to completion -- I promise), I thought this might be a space to repurpose and remold into sharing other genealogical tidbits, research nuggets, and stories of successes and failures.

Consider this my first repurposing. It is one of frustration, anger, and sadness.

EDIT: For those who come across this blog post by itself,  you can read the joint statement crafted by the National Genealogical Society, the Association of Professional Genealogists, and myself at Copyright, Contracts, Commitments, and Human Decency: Resolution.


  1. I'm so sorry this happened to you......I know you don't know me at all but I have read your blog and looked at all your accomplishments. This is just sad. Sad for you, sad for the people that expected to hear you and disrespectful of you and your contributions to the field of genealogy. You deserved better.

  2. So happy to see you blogging again. So unhappy that the NGS is not living up to its supposed standards. Thanks for the warning and looking forward to seeing more from you.

  3. Michael - there is an old saying (and I am paraphrasing here) ... The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing ... I am one of those crazy people who believe in rules and order and, not only that people should play by the rules, but that they should be enforced by those who make them. The NGS is hoping you will, eventually, give up and go away. DON'T! Because if they get away with this with you, they will get away with this again and again.

  4. Wow, that was eye opening. Thanks for sharing your story. Telling a story accurately, a family story, is what genealogy is all about. And by the way, thanks for coming to Fort Wayne and lecturing at the FGS conference in 2018. Keep up the good work of telling truthful stories.

  5. First, good to see a post from you---some of us were worried! Second, I taught copyright law and contract law for many years, and I agree that your rights have been violated. My guess is that the reason you are getting no response is that they know that and have been advised by their lawyers not to say anything that would constitute an admission. Perhaps they've done this with others and fear a large lawsuit. Have you talked to a lawyer about filing a suit? Maybe doing that will force them to respond. Just a thought. (And no, I don't practice any more so I am not looking for work!)

  6. So very, very sorry that this has happened to you. The real loss is for the people who came to hear you. I find you to be one of the best lecturers; funny, insightful and I always learn something that I actually bring back and put into practice. I have always respected the NGS; they are after all the bastions of all things genealogical. However, putting yourself above all common forms of decency and professionalism tells us all that they must deem the rest of us to be "less than". Are they not the standard bearers of what we all strive to be? I guess not. They may dictate how we cite our sources, and how to record the lives of dead people. We could all teach them about how to handle the living.

  7. I had the pleasure of speaking to you briefly at OGS and told you how much I miss your blog. A friend who is new to genealogy attended your luncheon talk. I, too, am sorry that one of my favorite genealogists is having to fight this battle. No you have my support and that of many, many others in this field.

  8. Michael -- echoing others -- so happy to see a blog again but so very sorry for the reason. It may be true that NGS is acting upon the advice of their attorneys BUT they should be scurrying to FIX this travesty immediately, especially since it is apparently ongoing. What are they thinking??? Not fixing such an egregious error [I assume it was an error] is only compounding their liability. Their shoddy treatment of you and others] by the professional organization representing us all is insane. I hope they realize that their actions go well beyond stiffing you and relate to the very being of their existence.

  9. Delighted to hear from you! Interesting that such a world recognized company is exhibiting such swamp characteristics-just another cultural paragon to tumble.
    Truly would like to hear "the rest of the story". Cliff hangers create anxiety, and you are one of the best at that!

  10. If it is in their contract that participants must choose to opt in they should adhere to it...period

  11. Thank you for writing this. I had already lost respect for NGS after their shoddy treatment of a friend who worked long and hard for them. This only solidifies that disrespect.

  12. OH wow! Sad and disappointing on how you have been treated. Gotta a agree with all the above comments made, other than the ""Anonymous, 9May 628am".

  13. Michael, We at MCIGS are very much looking forward to having you at our conference once again. So many have already registered for your lectures. Thanks for coming our way in July. Claudia Conroy

  14. We did miss you in St. Charles, and I did purchase the luncheon ticket in order to hear your presentation and was looking forward to your other sessions. Sorry that NGS has not been honorable. Look forward to seeing you at FGS

  15. Appalling. Copyright is serious business and having seen your talks, I know you invest a lot of time and energy into making them informative, interesting, and educational. Your intellectual property should be respected, without excuses.

  16. Michael, is it inappropriate to share your blog on Facebook? I know you provide the option but just wanted to make sure before doing so. One of the reasons I am on Facebook is because of the many genealogy pages. What has happened to you (and others, I am sure) is terrible on so many levels; it is doubly terrible to me both as a (former) librarian and a genealogist. The professional organization should be setting the standards, not ignoring them. I don't care what their status is in terms of profit or non-profit, they are breaking the law and there is absolutely no excuse for doing so. Period.

  17. We in the genealogy community need to stand up for you, Michael. Recording and selling your presentations was probably a mistake and could easily have been settled once you brought it to their attention. Retaliating against you by cancelling your talks and not even notifying you takes it to a much higher level.

  18. Michael, I am not surprised, and agree with what many of the other have written. NGS seems to have an institutional mentality that they are better than other organizations and individuals. I recall being told by a long-time NGS board member (who is also, a nationally known speaker, author, and well regarded genealogist) that speakers and vendors should not anticipate making a profit (or breaking even) when participating in a NGS conference. That participation should be seen as a mark of esteem by the genealogical community (meaning NGS) and should be considered a "marketing expense" since NGS speakers and vendors will then get contracts with other organizations and make money to pay their mortgages from these other events.