Ancestry.com (Ancestry) was sued on November 30, 2020, in a putative class action case filed in the Northern District of California for “knowingly misappropriating the photographs, likenesses, names, and identities of Plaintiff and the class; knowingly using those photographs, likenesses, names, and identities for the commercial purpose of selling access to them in Ancestry products and services; and knowingly using those photographs, likenesses, names and identities to advertise, sell and solicit purchases of Ancestry services and products; without obtaining prior consent from Plaintiffs and the class.”
The basis of the allegations stem from Ancestry’s business model of acquiring “huge databases of personal information…then selling access to that information for subscription fees.” According to the Complaint, “Ancestry’s databases comprise billions of records belonging to hundreds of millions of Americans.” In particular, the lawsuit alleges that 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…includes over 60 million individuals records from California schools and universities.”
The Complaint alleges that Ancestry failed to obtain consent from, give notice to, or provide compensation “to tens of millions of Californians whose names, photographs, biographical information, and identities appear in its Ancestry Yearbook Database,” that this information uniquely identifies individuals, and that Ancestry sells access to the records to subscribers.
Neither of the named plaintiffs are subscribers to Ancestry.com, yet their yearbook pictures and specific information are located and searchable within the database.
The claims against Ancestry include violation of California’s Right of Publicity Statute for “misappropriation of a name, voice, signature, photograph, or likeness in advertising or soliciting without prior consent,” which provides for statutory damages of up to $750 per violation, and declaratory and injunctive relief, the California Unfair Competition Law, intrusion upon seclusion, and unjust enrichment.