There's a question today Passenger Lists to USA 1923-1925 that is a simple look-up on Ancestry, which the questioner presumbably doesn't have access to. Takes a few seconds to find the mother and daughter at least.

How should these be answered? Maybe "It's on Ancestry, go look there". (written more politely)? It may appear mean to the questioner that I have the information but won't share it, yet to answer with the details found on a subscription site would violate the terms and conditions of the site.

There's nothing in the FAQ which addresses this, so it's a reasonable question for the OP to ask.

In this case, it's not an explicit request to look up a particular source, but that can happen if the answers start containing the details asked for.


There have been hot discussions on this subject on UK genealogy forums for years, with most forums banning lookups as they don't want to be party to possible copyright infringements.

But I've taken another look and they've become more relaxed about it recently, allowing lookups that don't have any copy-and-paste element (in other words, your own transcript, and no image).

Some UK sites are still specific: "If you persistently offer lookups to other people and provide them with newspaper archive, or use a personal subscription for professional purposes, we also reserve the right to stop your access and to terminate our agreement with you."

So I'm modifying my view on this. If somebody wants to break the terms and conditions of the sites they use by doing lookups, probably we shouldn't stop them, as there's no proof (yet) anything will ever happen as a result.

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    "details found on a subscription site would violate the terms and conditions of the site" - I do not believe that would be true on most sites in most countries. Citing a fact and including the citation should not violate most T&C's and certainly not violate copyright. If it did violate T&C to 'publish' a fact and citation to a paid site, then it would apply to your ancestors as well and no one (incl subscription members) could do it.
    – Duncan
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 14:34
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    Probably one of the clearest is: thegenealogist.co.uk/nameindex/… - which includes terms like: "Providing a look-up service will cause immediate suspension without refund. Those proven to be using our service to provide a look-up service to others will be liable to a charge of £5 per distinct name for which they have searched and £10 for each result viewed." "Definitions: Look-up: Looking up information in our databases on behalf of others, whether or not for payment". Fairly draconian and of course counter-productive, loses them customers.
    – Rob Hoare
    Commented Jan 1, 2013 at 6:09

5 Answers 5


This is a good question. If you can find the answer to the question, go ahead and answer it, but be sure to describe where and how you found it. Make the answer useful to others with a similar case. Demonstrate what to genealogists should try when in these situations, what tactics should be used, etc. If the question is asking for John Doe's death certificate (b. London 1792), show how you found it so the next user looking for a British death certificate knows what to do in order to find it.

However, you shouldn't be worried about copying information (e.g. a birthdate) from Ancestry. If you just provide the basic information and cite the Ancestry version, it's not really a violation of the copyright. As long as you just point to where an image is to be found rather than reproduce the image itself, it'll probably be fine. Think of it as citing a research paper. You're (hopefully) not copying the entirety of someone else's paper. Instead, you're gathering information from different sources and citing them appropriately. Copyright infringement is when you copy an entire database. That's clear-cut infringement and good grounds for a lawsuit. However, as long as you provide the sources for your information and don't go copying massive chunks of information, you should be fine.

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    Gene's done a good job of answering it in that style. I'm not concerned about the copyright (they're facts), but the terms and conditions of each site. Most do not permit any part of their data to be passed to unrelated third parties (unless by a professional researcher). They can enforce that by cancelling accounts. It has happened, especially with some of the more paranoid UK sites.
    – Rob Hoare
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 5:56
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    @RobHoare, can you cite any specific examples of this happening with Ancestry.com accounts? It would help move this discussion along to have real, specific evidence to work with, as opposed to speculation. Hope this helps.
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 7:30
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    @jmort253 - good point, it is mostly heresay from mostly UK sites (rather than Ancestry, even though Ancestry's terms are similar). I've updated my question, as not enough room here and hard to use links.
    – Rob Hoare
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 9:06
  • FindMyPast's Ts & Cs say "We are also happy for you to help out other people with their family history by telling them about records available on the website and how and where they can be found". So I believe you can say "John Doe's arrival is in the XYZ recordset on FMP but he's indexed as John Dee". If GenealogySE starts providing look-ups then I believe that violates the Ts & Cs of FMP because you are doing more than telling them about the record - you are providing them with the record, and it's via a look-up service.
    – AdrianB38
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 20:11
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    Hey Luke, I wanted to point out that the "pi symbol" at the beginning of your alias makes it somewhat tough to chat ping you and ping you as an editor (and in other places where there's no auto-complete). Since you're a mod and people may need to ping you, you should consider moving the "pi" to another position. New users who don't know SE may especially find it challenging. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Jan 4, 2013 at 5:04

FWIW, I saw Kevin's tweet asking for help with finding the immigration records of this family. I replied, suggesting that it would make a good question on this site. He posted the question almost immediately, and I answered it later that evening. I do think these kinds of questions are legitimate, as going after these sorts of "low-hanging fruit" serves to increase our readership. As long as we offer more than just facts, but teach something about method as well, I think we are staying true to our mission even if there is some methodological redundancy because it is possible to highlight specifics of each case and doing so with that person's data makes it more likely to engage novices.

Oh yeah, and Twitter seems to help spread the word.

  • Not a bad idea, and you can always revisit this idea later on in the future and make a plan to start closing them as dups, if these types of posts become too frequent/problematic. :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:02

There's a related question about whether we see lookup-requests as off-topic/too localised/duplicates. If somebody asks for a lookup in the same dataset for a different ancestor, it's not an exact duplicate but the 'general method' has already been provided in an answer to this question.

  • A different fact is a different question (ie not a duplicate). This assumes the answer to the other scope question that we allow questions on facts not just 'how to' questions. This question is asking whether we should help each other if we have access to a resource someone else doesn't.
    – Duncan
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 14:27
  • @Duncan Although it might be a different question, if it requires the same method (e.g., both finding a Quebec birth certificate from the 19th century, albeit different individuals), it is essentially a dupe. A user can use the technique of the original to find the answer to his own problem. However, if you run into complications which would require an altered procedure, I'm not at all opposed to a new question addressing this new-found problem. What I would be opposed to is having two questions practically identical except for the individual in question with no other complications to address.
    – Luke_0
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 22:39

Great question. Note it applies not just to internet lookups (on both paid and unpaid sites) but lookups in real books, including ones not everyone has access to. Not everyone lives near:

No one can live near all of them, and they all contain information not on the internet.

This question also applies to place information (eg cemeteries) as well as books.

I vote people should help other people to the extent they can. Time is a very precious resource so obviously any given person can't spend all their waking hours looking up stuff for other people - but if everyone spends a little time doing this it will make this site both popular and useful. I think there has been plenty of evidence that some participants are doing this already and they should be commended and encouraged.

Obviously don't violate the terms and conditions of any site or the copyright of any book - but genealogy is all about good citations anyway. Include the fact, cite where you found it, and you should be legal. Note this (fact & citation) is required whether you are doing it for your own ancestor or someone else's.

Citations are important in genealogy and it serves as a form of advertising for the site/book/author/whatever. People (more than just the OP) who receive the benefit of the answer might go out and buy the site/book/whatever now that they see it has useful information in it and they want to find out what else it has. The other thing the person might do is 'pass it forward', ie they are more likely to then help others and the affect multiplies. I know it did with me and findagrave. I now photo gravestones for others since someone did it for me once.

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    For now, I'd say being less restrictive is better than being more restrictive in this area, but if the site gets flooded with "When was Bob Smith born?" type questions that add little value to the site, it may then be time to revisit this idea and periodically re-evaluate whether or not we want these questions. Maybe at the moment that's fine, but I urge everyone to not take this discussion's resolution as being permanent. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 30, 2012 at 19:04
  • As long as our questions answered stays in the high 90's, then it is a non-issue. Ie if the flood does occur, maybe it's because there are alot of users and hopefully even the flood will get handled. If not (or if a particular person is 'over using' other's help), then we should deal with the specifics of the situation at that time.
    – Duncan
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 1:53
  • Not sure if questions answered has much to do with quality. The stats can look good in the short term without highlighting potentially low quality questions. Not saying we're at that point yet, just that judging quality relies on more of a subjective approach.
    – jmort253
    Commented Dec 31, 2012 at 5:29

This Meta Q was referenced in a comment on need lookup due to isp-wide blacklisting

TL;dr I think lookup requests should be off-topic.

My rule of thumb for this site is that questions and answers should make a case study that is of use to other people who find us and have a similar problem to the one in the question. "I need (some thing), can someone fetch it for me?" is a question that is useful only to the person who is asking.

If someone wants to modify this question to be about finding alternative sources for the information when you can't reach the primary site -- in other words, making the Q not be a lookup request -- I think that would be acceptable, but I have no research interests in Colorado, and I'm not interested in writing an answer. I would vote to close if I were not a mod.

Acceptable Qs along these lines would be asking for a better set of keywords or wildcards to find a particular record in a database, asking what information might be in the source if the person could find their person, and other things of this kind that might help another person struggling to use the same database.

Questions that can be answered by: "I got N hits using these keywords at W website" are probably more appropriate in chat, instead of a Q on the main site. I think answering that kind of question is less likely to violate any Terms of Service than providing the information itself.

"I need this, gimmie a copy" (or a politer variant of same) is not a specific research question. We aren't Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness and I don't see why we should try to be.

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