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Licence sale may mean money doesn't grow on family trees

Brightsolid faces competition as Scottish government prepares to open access to data By Peter John Meiklem

A SCOTTISH web company's plan to use the online sale of family tree information to drive sales could be damaged by government moves to offer licences for the same information to the company's competitors.

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Brightsolid, which is owned by Dundee newspaper group DC Thomson and run by Chris van der Kuyl - who made his name in the Scottish computer games industry - last week stressed the importance being placed on the business's range of genealogy services.

Earlier this year, Brightsolid bought family history company Findmypast.com for an undisclosed sum, adding to its existing Scotlandspeople.gov.uk website, the running of which it shares with the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS), the National Archives of Scotland and the official heraldic authority, the Court of the Lord Lyon.

Both websites make money by charging people to search census and other data so customers can compile their family tree. Charges on Findmypast.com range from £6.95 for 60 search credits to £89.95 for a 12-month subscription.

Amid hints the company was looking at further acquisitions to add to its two existing family tree websites, van der Kuyl claimed it would be responsible for "significant" growth into the "double-figure millions" in the next few years. This comes after the company's rebranding from Scotland Online to the new Brightsolid name last year.

However, van der Kuyl's strategy may be damaged by the revelation this week that the Scottish government is preparing to advertise licences to some of the data that Brightsolid profits from through Scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Currently, Brightsolid is the only company that makes money from GROS data.

A Scottish government spokesman said the data the company uses from GROS was about to be advertised to others for only a nominal administrative sum. He said: "We will advertise access to the material in the coming months."

Van der Kuyl, appointed chief executive of the company by co-owner DC Thomson and merchant bank Noble Grossart in October 2007, said he was aware the government was in negotiations to offer licences to other companies but considered it "not a threat but an opportunity", as the company plans to purchase several of the licences for Findmypast.com, which is currently unable to use GROS data.

Van der Kuyl added that Brightsolid's sites have two million registered users, and that there was a "significant" potential for further growth in the genealogy sector.

He said: "It is one of the few places on the internet where people are comfortable with paying for content. People understand when it comes to specialist information that they are prepared to pay for it.

"It usually involves the older demographic, people who are 45-plus, and that is good because they have a lot of disposable income. A lot of things on the internet do not interest them - this does," he said.

Brightsolid has recently won a contract to digitise, license and publish the 1911 Census of England and Wales from the National Archives in Kew, London. Van der Kuyl said the contract win was a "big deal" since the 1911 data is the most recent for which a licence is available, due to a 100-year bar on publishing it. He said it showed the extent of the company's ambitions to expand in markets outside Scotland.

But Simon Harper, managing director of market leader Ancestry.co.uk, said he was "not particularly bothered" by Brightsolid's genealogy push. He said his company had pulled out of the bidding process for the 1911 census because he believed it would only "tell our customers what they already know".

Harper said his company had asked the government about getting access to more Scottish material. "We have other deals coming that will eclipse all others and ensure that we remain as number one," he said.

Van der Kuyl said he had a longstanding relationship with DC Thomson and had been asked to "come on board" as chief executive at Scotland Online, now Brightsolid, in October last year.

The company's other business activities include web hosting for clients such as the Dunfermline Building Society, and the Aberdeen Press and Journal, which is owned by DC Thomson.

Van der Kuyl is better known for his work in the computer games industry, promising in 1999, as he addressed the Labour party conference while only in his twenties, to build his game development firm VIS Entertainment into a £500 million empire in three years. He eventually sold the business to American games publisher BAM! for £4.5m in 2004.

John Thomson, who sits on the Brightsolid board along with DC Thomson chief executive Christopher Thomson, said: "With his energy and experience, Chis van der Kuyl has brought a new sense of purpose to Brightsolid, and the company is now well positioned with a great team."

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