Ancestry.com Faces Proposed Class Action Lawsuit Over Allegedly Misappropriated Yearbooks

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Ancestry.com Faces Proposed Class Action Lawsuit Over Allegedly Misappropriated Yearbooks
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Popular ancestry tracker Ancestry.com is facing a proposed class action lawsuit over the alleged misappropriation of photographs, likenesses, names, etc. of class members in a collection of yearbooks used without permission.

Misappropriation in the legal context refers to any unauthorized or unlawful use of funds or property for a purpose other than its original intent. In this case, the property which has allegedly been misappropriated includes plaintiffs’ names, photographs, and biographical information including cities of residence, schools attended, and estimated ages (i.e. any information which could be derived from a yearbook).

It’s no secret that Ancestry relies on a wide variety of databases to track family members’ identities.

One of these databases in particular inspired this proposed class action lawsuit. One of Ancestry’s yearbook databases titled “U.S. School Yearbooks, 1900-1999” includes more than 60 million individual records of former California students. According to the official complaint, the proposed class’s main allegation is that “Ancestry has not received consent from, given notice to, or provided compensation to tens of millions of Californians whose names, photographs, biographical information, and identities appear in its Ancestry Yearbook Database.”

The complaint alleges that Ancestry is using this misappropriated information to solicit the purchase of its subscription.

When a potential customer is interested in using Ancestry’s family-tracking services, they are encouraged to take advantage of a free trial period; the complaint points out that during this trial period, the potential customers have access to a wide variety of databases, including the Ancestry Yearbook Database, and the intention is that at the end of the free trial customers will continue their subscription with payments rather than canceling. Additionally, some limited-access searching services are available to interested users outside of the trial period, which may allow them to search through the Ancestry Yearbook Database but will not let them see the information therein without purchasing a subscription or starting the free trial.

Ancestry allegedly does not obtain or even attempt to obtain permission from the individuals whose personal information is accessible on the site.

The complaint goes on to allege that not only does Ancestry not seek consent to use the personal information of the people contained in its database, they are also not given notice or provided with compensation. The question here seems to be, who is at fault for that? Ancestry encourages people to donate old yearbooks to their database; theoretically, this is how most if not all of the database was created. While a donation-based database certainly implies consent from the owners of the yearbooks making the donations, what about all of the people whose identities are contained in the yearbooks yet are unaware of the donation? The complaint seems to imply that Ancestry should be individually contacting these people to let them know their information has been included in their database, and compensated accordingly.

With the rise in popularity of family-tracking websites, it’s surprising there are not more lawsuits of this kind.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in reconnecting with one’s familial roots. While an interest in family history isn’t harmful in itself, it’s curious to think that little fuss has been made in regard to how Ancestry and other similar companies build the databases through which their customers are allowed to search. While other similar issues have arisen, this lawsuit appears to be one of the largest proposed class action complaints in the field of family tree website legality. This lawsuit is seeking damages including an injunction to prevent Ancestry from engaging in future similar actions, as well as restitution for the class members whose information has allegedly been misappropriated.

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