05/02/2019 12:21 EDT | Updated 05/02/2019 18:12 EDT

Afterlife Network Inc. Ordered To Pay $20M In Damages For 'Obituary Piracy'

It didn't contest the allegations.

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — A $20-million ruling against a website accused of pirating obituaries and photos of dead people in order to profit from grieving families will deter other sites from doing the same, according to the lawyer who led the lawsuit.

Erin Best, a civil litigator based in St. John's, N.L., said the class action suit launched last year by her client, Dawn Thomson, against the defunct online site, Afterlife, has achieved its purpose.

"The decision acts as a deterrent," she said in a telephone interview Thursday. "Anybody else in the future who copies an obituary and puts it on a website ought to expect that a claim could be brought against them."

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A screengrab shows the homepage of Its parent company has been ordered to pay $20 million in damages for what a judge called "obituary piracy."

The strongly worded decision by Federal Court Judge Catherine Kane, dated April 30, called the operations of Afterlife Network Inc. "high-handed, reprehensible and ... a marked departure from standards of decency."

The representative plaintiff's father, Denis Trainor, died in January 2017. Thomson wrote an obituary for her father and gave permission to a funeral home and the Green's Harbour Community Channel to publish it, along with a photograph she'd taken.

She later discovered that Afterlife was displaying her father's obituary and photograph on its website alongside options to buy flowers and virtual candles — all without her permission.

"Thomson described her outrage and mortification that others would think she sought to profit from her father's death," noted Kane. Her reaction was echoed by other class action suit members, the judge said.

"The evidence of many ... is that they had written the obituaries in a personal way and that their discovery that the obituaries had been reproduced with the addition of sales of candles and other advertising was an emotional blow," Kane wrote.

Company didn't contest allegations

The judge found the company had repeatedly violated copyright rules by using photographs and details of dead people to market flowers and other gifts to people.

Best said she will begin the process of collecting damages from the website's owners. It's still unclear, however, how many people will claim money. She said there are potentially hundreds of thousands of claimants.

The method of administering the damages will eventually be presented to court for approval, Best said.

The ruling says the firm didn't contest the allegations brought forward in proceedings filed in Ottawa.

Pascal (Paco) Leclerc, who is named in the lawsuit as an investor in the firm, wrote in an email that "the day we heard that publishing obituaries on the internet similar to that of newspapers and ... using photos and original text was not acceptable, we immediately stopped operating the company."

Screengrab/Afterlife/Internet Archive
Users on Afterlife could pay to light virtual candles or send flowers to families of the deceased.

He said he was not an owner of Afterlife, but was "a silent investor" in a tech company.

"It was not until we received feedback that people wanted to send flowers to the family and other products, that they made these options available," Leclerc wrote. "The income received never covered the cost of creating and operating the website."

Leclerc said that after Afterlife was closed he set up a fresh website which only posts "basic facts of the deceased and does not post original text or photos unless given direct permission by the family."

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