Sued for Misappropriating Yearbook Photos for Database

Meredith Callahan and Lawrence Geoffrey Abraham filed a putative class-action complaint against for allegedly misappropriating personal information without consent and for using the information for advertising and other promotional purposes.

According to the complaint, Ancestry “knowingly misappropriat(ed) the photographs, likeness, names, and identities of Plaintiffs and the class; knowingly us(ed) those photographs, likeness, names, and identities for the commercial purpose of selling access to them in Ancestry products and services; and knowingly us(ed) those photographs, likeness, names, and identities to advertise, sell, and solicit purchases of Ancestry services and products; without obtaining prior consent from Plaintiffs and the class.”

The plaintiffs asserted that Ancestry’s “business model relies on amassing a huge database of personal information … then selling access to that information for subscription fees.” Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that Ancestry’s databases contain “billions of records belonging to hundreds of millions of Americans.”

The lawsuit focuses on “Ancestry’s database, entitled ‘U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999’ (‘Ancestry Yearbook Database’), which includes the names, photographs, cities of residence, and schools attended of many millions of Americans.” The plaintiffs proffered that Ancestry did not notify, compensate, or obtain consent from the putative class, whose names, photographs, cities of residence, and other identifiers appear in the database. Moreover, the plaintiffs claimed that the “vast majority of people whose personal information Ancestry has amassed in its Ancestry Yearbook Database have no business relationship with Ancestry, are not Ancestry subscribers, and are not subject to a Terms of Service or any other agreement with Ancestry.”

For instance, the plaintiffs alleged that during the free trial period, users are encouraged to search the databases in Ancestry, including the Yearbook Database “for the names of any people they may know or be curious about. In response to searches … users receive a list of records, each which corresponds to a specific identifiable person” and includes various identifiable information. The plaintiffs added that free trial users are able to “download full-resolution versions of yearbook photos of the individuals they have searched.” Additionally, Ancestry offers a limited access version of its site, where users are also encouraged to search databases, such as the Yearbook Database, but only have access to low-resolution photographs.

Moreover, the plaintiffs alleged that Ancestry uses the “names, photographs, images, likeness, and other personal information it has amassed in its databases” in its promotional emails to encourage potential customers to sign up and existing customers to upgrade. The plaintiffs claimed that upon information and belief, the Yearbook Database has been used in said promotional means. Thus, according to the plaintiffs, Ancestry “is knowingly using the names, photographs, and likeness of Plaintiffs and the class to advertise, sell and solicit the purchase of its subscription products and services.” Consequently, the plaintiffs averred that Ancestry misappropriated the information in its database because people’s information is being used as a “core element of its products and services, and to sell and advertise its products and services, without providing any notice to the human beings who are its subjects.”

The complaint provided exemplary searches for the plaintiffs and their respective records, photographs, and information. The 26 exemplary records “(a)ll plainly and conspicuously display Ms. Callahan’s name, image, photograph, estimated age, school, city of residence, and the date of the yearbook in which the photographs appear. In four of the records Ms. Callahan’s face is the sole subject of the photograph. In all twenty-six records she is clearly identifiable by name and image.”

Ancestry is accused of violating California’s right to publicity, the California Unfair Competition Law, California’s common law right protecting against Intrusion upon Seclusion, and the California Unjust Enrichment law.

The plaintiffs have sought class certification, for the plaintiffs and their counsel to represent the class, declaratory judgment, an injunction, restitution, an award for damages, an award for costs and fees, and other relief.

The plaintiffs are represented by Morgan & Morgan Complex Litigation Group as well as Benjamin R. Osborn.