Class-action lawsuit filed against website for posting obituaries without consent

Lawyer Erin Best has asked the federal court to certify the class-action lawsuit, alleging copyright infringement by a website that posts obits and sells memorial merchandise.

St. John's lawyer Erin Best inundated by complaints from families

St. John's lawyer Erin Best told CBC's Here & Now said the issue with obituaries posted on Afterlife is one of consent. (CBC)

A St. John's lawyer has launched a class-action lawsuit against a website that collects obituaries from all over Canada and posts them without the permission of families.

Erin Best said Wednesday that — if certified by the federal court of Canada — the lawsuit will be an "opt-out" one that could include thousands of people.

According to Best, the issue is one of copyright infringement. She said the written obituaries and accompanying pictures are owned by the writers and photographers, typically families who submitted the material to a local funeral home or newspaper.

About a quarter of a million obituaries are posted on a website called Afterlife, a company that also sells virtual animated candles and memorial merchandise.

Raylene Manning-Puddister was outraged when her young son's obituary appeared on the Afterlife website without her permission. (CBC)

Since a St. John's man, George Murphy, spoke out about his mother's obit being used by Afterlife, without permission, Best has been inundated with calls and emails from other families who had the same thing happen.

"I think the floodgates have pretty much opened now," she told CBC Television's Here & Now.

"People are very upset. People are telling me stories about their children who have passed, whose pictures are up on the site."

Best said she has heard from a number of people who had obituaries of loved ones posted by Afterlife just after their death, in some cases within a day or two.

"Our children are gone. We're trying to survive, and you are using our grief to make money," said Raylene Manning-Puddister, who found the obituary for her 22-year-old son on the site.

There have been other complaints from families in Alberta and Ontario.

Looking for damages, apology

Best says it's more than an invasion of privacy.

"When you write a piece of text or if you take a photo then you are essentially the author of a literary work or an artistic work under the Copyright Act," she said.

"You can claim for statutory damages … and the act provides a range for those damages, which is $500 to $20,000 per work infringed."

The class action also asks that the obituaries be taken off the website and people want an apology, Best said.

"If we are granted injunctive relief by the court, I can't see how the website would stay up unless they remove all of the originality," she said, meaning that the only thing posted could be basic facts.

Afterlife said at the time of the original complaints that its website is a database that "allows people over distances to reach out."

It promised to delete or edit information, if a family complained.

With files from Carolyn Stokes