Responding to Thom MacEntee's Open Thursday Thread on the Content Wars:
- 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.
My response: I think the digitizers have the right to recoup their expenses of digitizing and providing the documents online in a searchable format. That said, anyone who has ever paid a toll on a highway knows that although the initial costs may have been repaid, the toll never dies. There will always be a choice. You can use it online and pay a fee (for convenience and the opportunity cost of travel) or go to where the actual document is and see it for free.
- 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?
My response: No it doesn't matter and an emphatic yes, it matters if there is a good index/search mechanism. Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis charge an arm and leg for their content, which is law, and in the U.S. the law is owned by no one. (that is, cases and statutes, etc.)
- 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?
My response: Yes they should. Many societies may have debts or overhead to deal with. Membership is key for those societies. I think making the index free to entice membership is a great marketing ploy.
- 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?
My response: From your mouth to God's ear that most records are digitized within my lifespan. It's all about the quality-added for the vendors. Are records responsibly linked between individuals who created them? Are the search mechanisms robust? Can you keyword search entire documents or only subject search them? If genealogical societies give their holdings away for free, they are doomed. They should fold themselves back into their respective geographical area historical societies. The content is online and the actual documents are protected in a society.