Judge: Lawsuit over LinkedIn's repeated invitation emails can proceed

Plaintiffs allege LinkedIn improperly profited from their names by sending multiple invites to join the site to their contacts

LinkedIn will have to face a lawsuit that alleges it damaged the image of users by repeatedly sending emails to their contacts inviting them to join the social network.

The lawsuit was filed in September 2013 and LinkedIn had attempted to get it dismissed, but in a ruling on Thursday Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California said the case would continue, albeit in a narrowed form.

At the center of the case is a function on the LinkedIn website that allows users to invite people to connect with them. Users are able to give LinkedIn access to their address books from email services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail and LinkedIn will find existing members and offer to send an email invitation to those people who aren't signed up to the site.

The invitation email is personalized with the name of the user doing the inviting and doesn't go out once but three times.

"Nothing in LinkedIns disclosures alerts users to the possibility that their contacts will receive not just one invitation, but three. In fact, by stating a mere three screens before the disclosure regarding the first invitation that 'We will not . . . email anyone without your permission,' LinkedIn may have actively led users astray," Judge Koh wrote in her ruling.

The plaintiffs allege that because LinkedIn gets an economic benefit from signing up more users, the repeated emails have violated California's common law right of publicity. The law is intended to protect people from having their likeness used in an unauthorized way for commercial purposes.

"The Court notes that this type of injury, using an individuals name for personalized marketing purposes, is precisely the type of harm that Californias common law right of publicity is geared toward preventing," said Koh.

In finding there is an economic benefit to LinkedIn in using a member's name, she relied on a previous case brought against Facebook for its "sponsored stories" advertising feature and quotes from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.

During the case, Zuckerberg was quoted as saying, "[a] trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message. A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising." Meanwhile, Sandberg was quoted as saying, "[m]arketers have always known that the best recommendation comes from a friend ... This, in many ways, is the Holy Grail of advertising."

Koh sided with LinkedIn and dismissed other claims in the lawsuit, but said it could continue on the issue of unauthorized publicity.

"We are pleased that the Court rejected plaintiffs' unfounded 'hacking' claims and found that LinkedIn members consented to sharing their email contacts with LinkedIn," LinkedIn said in a statement. "We will continue to contest the remaining claims, as we believe they have no merit."

In summing up her order, Koh wrote, "the Court finds that individuals names have economic value where those names are used to endorse or advertise a product to the individuals friends and contacts. This is so because an advertisement bearing the imprimatur of a trusted or familiar source, such as a friend or acquaintance, has concrete value in the marketplace. Here, Plaintiffs allege that their names were misappropriated by LinkedIn to create personalized endorsements."

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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