Thursday, August 5, 2021

Deleting Photos Instead of Adding to My Family Trees


For the next few days, instead of adding to my trees, I'm deleting personal photos from my Ancestry trees (but leaving gravestone photos and other selected items). Why?

Objections to Ancestry's new terms of service

On August 3, Ancestry emailed a notice to all subscribers, announcing a change in its terms of service. An excerpt from that notice is shown below. 

The headline is: "Your privacy is important to us." The next sentence states: "...being good stewards of your data is our highest priority." 

However, the Legal Genealogist (Judy G. Russell) warns that the change actually gives Ancestry a "perpetual, sublicensable, worldwide, irrevocable, royalty-free license" to do whatever it wishes with user-submitted content, forever. -- UPDATE from Aug 6: Judy discusses Ancestry's updated terms here.

If I upload a personal photo (or a story or other content) to my Ancestry trees, I still own the copyright

But by uploading, I agree to the new terms allowing Ancestry to use that photo in any way it chooses. The company can use my photo on any of its Ancestry sites, including Fold3 and FindaGrave, or perhaps use my photo in its advertising, without further permissions or notifications.

In the past, I've created bite-sized ancestor bios and uploaded them, with photos, to Fold3 (a subscription site) and FindaGrave (free), among other sites. This was my individual choice, for specific ancestors. It was not my intention to have this content shared across any and all Ancestry platforms (paid and free) without my permission. 

I strongly object to Ancestry's changes and I have some small individual power to act by removing selected content that I originally uploaded. (Note: Randy Seaver has submitted so much content to his trees over the years that he is leaving it there, as he explains in his blog post--while calling this a "major unforced error" by Ancestry.) (Another note: Roberta Estes is deleting her photos before Sept. 2; she also confirmed with MyHeritage that they do not handle user-submitted content in the same way as Ancestry.)

NOTE: If you have uploaded photos of living people to your Ancestry tree, please consider carefully whether those should remain or be removed. I deleted all of mine. Even though the person should not be visible to any public viewer of my tree, the photo would now be "licensed" to Ancestry under the new terms of service. I do not want that to happen, so deleted to protect privacy.

Sync (or download) first

The clock is ticking--the terms apparently will go into effect 30 days from notification.

My first step was to sync my Ancestry trees with my RootsMagic genealogy software, including media items connected to those trees. Before I do another sync, I'll make changes so that I don't overwrite my media-rich trees with non-media trees.

If you can't sync, be sure to download anything you are going to delete. Yes, you put it on Ancestry originally. If you can't find it easily in your digital files, download again just to be sure. Better safe than sorry.

Decide what to delete and what to leave

I've decided to leave on Ancestry any gravestone photos I've taken, as well as vital records I paid for and uploaded on my own. Also, I'm leaving any obits, photos from nonpersonal sources, and selected genealogy content such as an ancestor's handwritten notes about his ancestors (see above). 

None of this content is particularly personal and it may be valuable to others researching the same ancestors, so I want to keep it available to other Ancestry users.

However, I draw the line at personal family photos. Those I am deleting. Amy Johnson Crow created a video explaining why and how to remove photos from your Ancestry tree. You can view her video here. After I watched, I followed the instructions for viewing all media in a tree's media gallery, and selected those I want to remove from the tree (not just the gallery).

At top is a screen shot showing part of the media gallery for one of my trees. I decided to remove the photo of Chester Carsten (see red rectangle). I can always share it privately with any relatives who are interested, by my own choice. My f-i-l took this photo and I object to Ancestry having the right to do whatever it wishes with Chester's image.

Ancestry-based photos for profiles

I do want ancestors in my trees to be represented by photos or images wherever possible. Not flags or ships, not DNA strands, but photos. Luckily, Ancestry has helped me do just that. 

Remember a few years back, when Ancestry began digitizing school yearbooks? 

I had fun searching for ancestors in the yearbook files and attaching those to their profiles.

Now I'm using yearbook photos as ancestor profiles, as shown at right from the media gallery of one of my trees. There will be photos from other collections, I'm sure, but these are the most accessible for 20th century ancestors.

If not photos, I'll use part of a pertinent document (vital record, city directory, etc.) to add visual interest to that ancestor on my tree.

Amy's suggestion: add web link as a source

Amy Johnson Crow also suggested that we add a web link as a source for selected ancestors. If you have a blog or a website for genealogy, this is a good idea. The blog or website is yours, not Ancestry's, and you control that content.

To follow Amy's suggestion, go to the ancestor's Ancestry profile page, look at the bottom of the column of sources for facts, and see "Add web link" area. Click and paste in the web address, with a title you choose.

I'm currently adding my blog's ancestor landing page for the Wood family of Ohio as a source for ancestors who are part of that family. This allows me to send users to a page that I control on my own blog, with photos I post and other content that is mine. 

Should you delete content? Or add content?

There are many choices of places to plant a family tree online. I have trees on multiple websites, not just on Ancestry. Although I value Ancestry's research tools, and will continue as a subscriber, I do not appreciate the company changing the terms of use in the way it has.

My decision to delete personal family photos (or anything else) doesn't mean you should do the same. I won't be adding any more personal photos, even though I'm currently scanning dozens from the early 1900s. Please, take a look at the situation for yourself and decide whether you are okay with what Ancestry wants to do. 

If you have no major objections, just leave your content. On the other hand, some users are angry enough to download their trees (not just photos) and then delete them from Ancestry. 

This is a decision only you can make.


  1. Marion, My concern is for what we post about living individuals. These items have not, in the past, been available to be distributed unless we specifically allow it. Now Ancestry will be allowed to sell any and all info on specific living individuals that they want. The cybergeeks are going to have a field day mining your personal information. I will be removing any personal data that I have uploaded about living individuals to my Ancestry trees.

    1. You make a good point. We have to be concerned about all kinds of data, not just photos. TY for reading and commenting.

    2. Marian,

      Response to "unknown" about Living Individual. They are already Private. The AMT Owner has to specifically allow a viewer to see living individual..


    3. TY, Cousin Russ, for answering about living individuals being private. I think the reader was concerned that photos and information attached to that living/private person could still be covered by the new TOS, meaning Ancestry would then have the right to sublicense and share, etc. despite the info being for someone still alive.

  2. Interesting and thought -provoking. Thank you. I am not clear about images for which we don't have copyright eg vital records. My scan of a birth certificate - Am I able to 'give' that to ancestry ? Are we more at risk eg of being sued, if we have broken copyright?

    1. I suggest you read The Legal Genealogist's post, which Marian linked to. I'd guess that the vast majority of images uploaded to Ancestry are ones for which the uploader does not have copyright.

  3. I have uploaded no photos myself, but a number of people have copied photos and stories from my blog to attach to THEIR trees. My watermark is on the photos and most folks have credited my blog, but what do I do about that?

    1. This sounds like a question for the Legal Genealogist. She says we still have the copyright but aside from those people crediting your blog, I don't know what else you can do. I'm in the same boat.

  4. I started using Ancestry when it first came online as my primary tracking tool for my family tree. As it was the only tool I had access to, I uploaded everything I had for some family members, including Social Insurance Cards, Health Card, membership cards, etc., along with family photos and not legal documents.

    These were for people who had passed away, and I had the tree flagged as private. It was only later after reading blogs such as this did I should use other tools that kept the majority of my materials on a desktop family tree. But I've never taken the time to go back and review much of the original materials I posted. I viewed them to be private, so I didn't need to worry about who got access to them.

    I'm looking to clear out what might be called "legal" documents that someone could use for identity theft as having someone's SIN number could allow another person to get official government documents. I probably should never have scanned and posted those legal documents, but as I said, I initially planned to load everything into Ancestry and keep it private. As others have said, the new Ancestry ToS would give them control over such material, which others could then use inappropriately.

    I expect that much of what I have in my trees will stay as a large percentage of it came from online archives and databases such as Ancestry, BAC_LAC,, etc. If the records already exist online, then another user does not need my tree to get them. It might help shorten the research time as I've already confirmed the correct record, but they could find it on their own if they took the time.

    I just don’t know if I will post the 30 photos recently found of my one grandfather-in-law during his time in service during WWII. I’ll post at least 1 but more? I’m not sure anymore.

    1. Derek, at this point, you may want to post only 1 of those photos and retain the rest to share with relatives privately. And I like your idea of reviewing what's on your tree now and removing anything that you don't want others to see or use. Also, I agree that ancestor documentation such as birth/death records are available in other ways, and that's why I'm leaving those images and links on my tree.

  5. Some great suggestions here, Marian. I did want to point out that the one about "adding my blog's ancestor landing page for the Wood family of Ohio as a source for ancestors who are part of that family. This allows me to send users to a page that I control on my own blog, with photos I post and other content that is mine." I have no material that I myself have uploaded to Ancestry. However, I have distant kinfolk who have taken images from my blog and uploaded them to Ancestry. This does not really bother me, as I would not have put them on my blog in the first place if I was not willing to share them. I did want to point out that you cannot control what people do with the material you post on your blog, so I plan to be very careful about what I point people to on Ancestry.

    1. Amanda, you are absolutely correct that we cannot control what other people do with stories and photos they take from our genealogy blog and post to Ancestry or other sites. I do want to alert relatives and researchers to my blog, which has info not on my Ancestry trees, and that's why I will link to it on selected ancestor profiles. TY so much for your comments.