Genealogy services

Former students can sue over published yearbook photos

A federal judge has told a former class of students they can sue PeopleConnect after their yearbook photos were posted without their permission on the company’s social networking site. Classmates.com.

A class of Californians represented by lead plaintiffs Meredith Callahan and Lawrence Abraham filed a class action lawsuit against PeopleConnect in December 2021 after finding their decades-old yearbook photos posted on Classmates.com to attract subscribers.

Washington-based PeopleConnect collects and stores large amounts of directory information, including names and photos, which is used to promote its Classmates.com website.

Callahan and Abraham court case alleged that PeopleConnect had “misappropriated” their photographs and used their images “in advertising its products and services”, including “reprinted directories and subscriptions to the Classmates.com website”.

The plaintiffs argued that the directories in question “were published in the 1990s and early 2000s” when “the internet was in its infancy and social media didn’t exist,” so they don’t exist. never intended or consented to their photos being published online.

PeopleConnect has urged U.S. District Judge Edward Chen to rule in its favor following the dismissal of a similar class action lawsuit against genealogy giant, Ancestry.com by U.S. Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler in June 2021. Beeler found that yearbook photos are not private enough to warrant special protections. She also found Ancestry.com exempt from liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) because although it used school photos to attract followers, it did not create the content of its site.

However, last month Chen found that the ruling in favor of Ancestry.com did not prevent Callahan and Abraham from suing PeopleConnect for reposting yearbook photos without permission, reports Courthouse News.

While Chen dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that the company interfered with private information last year, he pushed the gist of the lawsuit forward, concluding that he should continue because the plaintiffs didn’t never been paid for the use of their yearbook photos and because those photos appear to have some publicity value for PeopleConnect.

Callahan and Abraham’s lawsuit is part of a series of legal battles over the expectation of confidentiality attached to old yearbook photos that have left the court system scrambling for answers.

In an interview with Courthouse NewsEric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, says that while directories are widely considered to be published material and people don’t own the copyright to their images, the realities of ‘Internet in today’s world have raised new issues that our legal system is struggling to resolve.

“The hard part is that directories had a degree of obscurity that made them harder to find in the future than other types of printed books, and the internet has lifted that veil of obscurity that shrouded directories in a way that feels like a new question even though we think of directories as published material,” says Goldman.

“And I think that’s why the courts are grappling with this issue. On the one hand, there is really no doubt about the nature of the directories and the documents published. On the other hand, the Internet is lifting this veil of darkness creating new exposure to these directories that people never anticipated.


Picture credits: Header photo by Kristina Matlachova of Pixabay.