I sat on a panel once with another novelist and a distinguished African-American critic, to discuss Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The critic said, “Of course, as a white woman, Stowe had no right to write the black experience.” The other novelist said lightly, “No, of course not. And I had no right to write about 14th-century Scandinavians. Which I did.”
The exchange made me wonder: who has the right to our stories?
The rest of the opinion piece is an interesting discussion of that question. Reading it, I could not help but think of a similar discussion that perpetually erupts in the genealogy world: who has the right to write our ancestors’ stories?
The first part of the conflict settles around factual research: the dates and places of events that took place during a person’s life, especially birth, marriage, and death. Often a great deal of research needs to take place for an individual to find this information. But conducting a large amount of research does not give one proprietary rights to the information. Facts cannot be copyrighted. The way in which you present the facts (eg., the language you use, etc.)can be protected by copyright. But the fact that someone was born on a certain date, or joined a particular society or organization, etc, cannot be copyrighted. That information can be used by anyone.
But beyond the facts are the stories we uncover. The service of a third-great-grandfather in the Civil War. The volunteerism of a great-grandmother in her church group. The conviction of an ancestral uncle as a horse thief.
Sometimes researchers get very proprietary about the stories that they uncover. Once again, one can only copyright the way in which the stories were told. If they are factual stories (and one presumes that if you are writing stories about your family, it is not fiction), the facts cannot be copyrighted. Anyone is free to tell these stories as well.
One of the major issues we run into with telling stories is not only who has the rights to them, but whether or not they should be published or shared with the world. Many people may disagree with an ancestor’s actions or words, or they may be embarrassed by them and not wish to be associated with them.
My rule of thumb is not to publish stories about living people without their permission (one does not wish to open one’s self up to a libel suit). I also do not share things about people one generation away from living people, unless there is a very compelling reason to do so. And this can be a tricky decision.
During the course of my research, I knew that as a teenager my paternal grandmother lost her mother. And her father (who died when I was only a year old) was not a very pleasant man (to put it charitably).
Research uncovered the fact that her father, Joseph Dubé, was involved in a barroom brawl that ended with a young man being so severely injured he died. Joseph was sentenced in Lewiston, Maine, to a year in prison. After his release, the family moved to Central Falls, R.I. Because this occurred before my grandmother was born, I never knew if she knew the facts about her father. But because she was in her late 80s when I discovered the information, I decided not to share it with her.
It did shed new light on Joseph’s story, however. He was only 21 years old when the fight occurred. At that age, we all did dumb things we are not necessarily proud of, and make poor choices. So now, instead of being a mean old man, I wonder: was he involved in the brawl because he was a mean person deep inside, or did he make a mistake as a young man when he got drunk; a mistake that he spent the rest of his life regretting because it cost a life, and it turned him very bitter. And who is the one to decide which of those stories is true?
For the most part, the reality is that any of us can publish any stories about our ancestors that we find. The important thing is to do your own research, and don’t violate anyone else’s copyright. And, for me at least, it is important to not publish things that would intentionally hurt a living person. My grandmother was the last of her siblings to survive. Once she passed, I had no problem discussing her father’s story. But I would not do so while she herself might be hurt by it.