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Fight over use of old yearbook photos time-barred

Time marches on — especially for publicity and unjust enrichment claims made under California's discovery rule.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Old yearbook photos may be mortifying, but finding them posted on the internet without one’s permission to sell a product might top that. But neither stopped a federal judge from in effect allowing Classmates.com from continuing to use the stuff of teenage nightmares.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen granted summary judgment to PeopleConnect, a Bellevue, Washington-based company that runs the social networking site Classmates.com. At issue was the company’s use of people’s old yearbook photos to promote its products, including reproductions of yearbooks and reconnecting people with their old school chums — for a fee.

Californians Meredith Callahan and Lawrence Geoffrey Abraham claim that happened to them. PeopleConnect collects and stores vast amounts of information from yearbooks, including names and pictures, that goes towards promoting Classmates.com, which offers a subscription membership service and even reprinted yearbooks for just under $100.

According to the 2020 class action, PeopleConnect operates this business without ever getting — let alone requesting — permission from the people in the pictures, a move the plaintiffs say violated their expectation of privacy.

Since then, Callahan, Abraham and others have dropped out of the suit, leaving Alex Tseng — who joined the suit in August 2022 — as the sole named plaintiff.

Chen found the discovery rule, which in California allows plaintiffs to file and maintain a personal injury suit even after the statute of limitations has lapsed, did not apply to the plaintiffs’ right of publicity and unjust enrichment claims.

"Defendant did not use plaintiff’s image to solicit paid subscriptions in an inherently secretive manner, and plaintiff had cause to seek access to how his image was being used after users agreed to defendant’s terms of service,” Chen wrote. “Plaintiff’s presumptive knowledge of his claims began in June 2014, since at that time he could both view his image on Classmates.com and access the How Stuff Works article outlining Classmates.com’s advertising flow. The court finds that the discovery rule does not apply to plaintiff’s right of publicity and unjust enrichment claims.”

Chen also ruled the discovery rule did not apply to the plaintiffs’ unfair competition law claims, which allows private parties to file claims against companies that commit fraudulent business acts.

“If plaintiff’s claims were not tolled, the statutes of limitations would run in 2016 and 2018, two and four years after plaintiff’s image became publicly accessible on Classmates.com,” Chen said. “Because defendant’s alleged campaign against plaintiff did not begin until 2020, it could not toll the statutes of limitations for claims that were by then already time-barred.”

Despite the ruling for PeopleConnect, Chen left the path open for the plaintiffs if they care to pursue further action.

“The case may otherwise proceed as to the claims of newly added plaintiffs subject to whatever defenses defendant may have,” he wrote.

The parties' attorneys did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

Categories: Business Consumers Technology

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