Who Holds the Copyright to an Obituary?
When someone composes an obituary for a loved one who has passed away, carefully selecting the photograph to go along with it, one would suppose that the last thing on their mind is the copyright they may hold in that obituary and photograph. Of course, few people expect that an obituary could be the subject of republication or possible copyright infringement.
However, one website has been reproducing obituaries in their “database of deceased people”, leading to questions about ownership of the obituaries themselves, as well as the photographs accompanying them. The website reproduces obituaries and photographs, apparently without permission from the individuals who originally created and posted the obituaries. As reported in this Global News article, one family even states that an obituary for their loved one, which had not been written by their family and contained a number of errors, was posted on the website less than a day after their loved one passed away. The family did not know who wrote the obituary, although the website released a statement that all of the obituaries they re-post are already on the internet.
A recent article in The Lawyer’s Daily discusses an application for certification of a class action copyright claim against this obituary database website. The application claims that the website is infringing copyright and moral rights in respect of the obituaries and photographs. The moral rights claim relates to the website’s monetization of the obituaries by offering options to purchase flowers, gifts, or virtual candles, through affiliate retailers. Some funeral homes offer a similar service, but the article notes that the unsavoury nature of the website’s business model, which consists of “scraping” obituaries from elsewhere on the internet, without permission or notice, and making money by doing so through advertisements or the selling of flowers or virtual candles, could provide some support for the moral rights claim.
In relation to the copyright infringement claims, there may be some obstacles to overcome, particularly in relation to ownership of the copyright. According to The Lawyer’s Daily article, under the Copyright Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42, the person claiming a copyright infringement must be the owner, assignee or exclusive licensee of the work in question. An assignment of copyright must be in writing. As mentioned in the article, this could create an issue if the photograph used in the obituary was taken, for instance, by a stranger.
Damages in the event of liability are also uncertain. In a recent case with similar facts, where the defendants were found to have infringed on the plaintiff’s copyright, the court awarded statutory damages of only $2.00 per image because the cost of capturing the images in that case was low. However, given the emotional aspect of obituaries, it is possible that the facts in this case could lead to a larger damages award.
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