Ancestry.Com Yearbook Lawsuit Dismissed

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Ancestry.Com Yearbook Lawsuit Dismissed
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In November 2020, popular ancestry tracker Ancestry.com received a class action complaint alleging that the company misappropriated yearbook photos and other identifying information without the permission of the yearbook occupants. As of March 1st, 2021, this lawsuit was officially dismissed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in San Francisco.

The original lawsuit argued that Ancestry did not receive consent from “tens of millions of Californians” included in its database.

The official complaint argued that Ancestry.com should be required to give notice, obtain consent from, and even provide compensation for the names, photos, and other biographical information included in the Ancestry Yearbook Database. This database is one of many that Ancestry customers have access to as they seek to identify familial connections and learn more about their heritage. Some of these databases may even be accessed for free during a trial period offered by the company. The plaintiffs in this lawsuit alleged that this practice constituted misappropriation, or the unauthorized and unlawful use of property for purposes other than its intent. Ancestry.com sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, and was eventually successful.

This lawsuit was officially dismissed due to a lack of Article III Standing among other things.

According to the order granting motion to dismiss (i.e. the official dismissal), the court dismissed the claims in the lawsuit due to a lack of Article III standing. Article III standing refers to the three minimum qualifications a claim must meet in order for it to stand or be pursued in court. The three rules under Article III include the following:

  • The plaintiff must have suffered an actual or threatened injury.
  • The injury or threatened injury can be traced to the defendant’s actions under question.
  • The injury can be remedied by a favorable decision in court.

Ancestry.com argued for the dismissal, pointing to the absence of any injury suffered by the plaintiffs or class members as a result of their Yearbook Database policy. After reviewing the evidence presented by both the plaintiffs and Ancestry.com, the court ruled the claims brought forth in the initial complaint did not qualify for the first rule of Article III and therefore lacked the necessary standing to continue.

The Communications Decency Act was listed as another reason for dismissal.

The dismissal letter also points to Ancestry.com’s immunity under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as a reason that the claim should not continue. The CDA was part of Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, aiming to prevent people from knowingly transmitting sexually explicit material to minors using the internet. However, the CDA also includes a general immunity for website operators hosting third-party content on their websites, including interactive computer services like Ancestry.com. Since Ancestry.com did not create the yearbook records, obtaining them from third parties instead, the court ruled that under the CDA they are immune from liability over this issue. Additionally, the court granted Ancestry.com’s motion to strike the plaintiffs’ request for statutory damage and restitution, pointing to several other similar cases involving public figures, services, and forums. With the rise in popularity of ancestry-tracking services, the results of this lawsuit pose as an interesting precedent for future misappropriation cases. However, the plaintiffs reportedly intend to file an amended complaint, so it’s possible that this dismissal will not be the last word on the issue.

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