January 1, 2021
A little over a year ago Ancestry debuted their enhanced yearbook collection featuring yearbooks from middle schools, junior high schools, high schools and colleges from all over the United States. Many of us in the genealogical community wrote columns and articles about the new feature and promoted it as a fun new feature of Ancestry’s website.
A few of us, including me, wondered quietly whether it was really okay for Ancestry to publish the yearbooks, particularly the newer ones, which would seem to violate living people’s privacy rights. In my own case, I felt a twinge when I saw my own, less than wonderful, photos displayed for the world to see without anyone asking my permission. However, I reasoned that Ancestry must have researched the copyright and privacy issues before they posted the yearbooks; after all they must have a staff of attorneys at hand since so much of their business model involves digitizing documents and other information that often involves copyright. In addition, yearbooks were published and sold in the first place and presumably anyone could acquire a copy of one on the secondary market today or simply by going to a local library, which often has copies of yearbooks from their area, and making copies of any pages they wanted.
Now it seems that two ex-students whose high school yearbooks are found in the Ancestry database “U.S., School Yearbooks, 1900-1999” have taken the matter to court. The lawsuit, which has the potential to become a class action suit where other ex-students may join in, alleges that Ancestry violated their privacy by publishing their yearbook photos. These photos not only show images of them but also contain personal data such as approximate age, place of residence, and other information. None of which Ancestry gained their permission to share. The plaintiffs are requesting that Ancestry be forced to take down the database and pay damages.
At this point, the case is pending, and no one seems to know what the outcome will be. What does seem clear is that yearbooks are a fuzzy area when it comes to copyright. The Legal Genealogist, Judy Russell, published a blog article about the situation on December 2, 2020 at https://www.legalgenealogist.com/2020/12/02/ancestry-sued-for-yearbooks/ . It’s well worth reading since she explains the facts of the case in a straightforward, easy to understand manner.
As of this morning, Ancestry still has the yearbook database available on their website. That may or may not mean they are not taking the lawsuit seriously – at least not yet. As I said in my column when the database first came out, if you want to save any photos from the yearbooks, it might be a good idea to do so now. Right now there are no restrictions on the availability and use of the photos, but with a lawsuit pending, that may soon change. In addition, if you plan to use any of the yearbook photos in something you plan to publish, you may want to hold off on that the lawsuit plays out.
Researcher/Director at Large