I got a comment recently on my blog about a scam that I was unaware of but which, after a small amount of research has made me boiling mad.
First, some background
The Internet is awash with images – mostly pictures of my cat, I admit, but they are everywhere – the World Wide Web is now a massively visual medium, made worse by social sites such as Facebook. The problem is, each one of these images is owned [by somebody] and they often don’t take kindly to anyone else using them without permissions [or payment].
The kings of the Pay-to-use images world are the stock photo libraries – massive databases of images, all of which have complex rules and pricelists depending on how, where and how long the image is used. It ay be 99c to have a thumbnail on your website or many $$ thousands to license an image to print on tee shirts or have as part of your company logo.
If you are looking for a picture, say, of a cat playing the piano, you can find many, many of them on any search engine. But each image has it’s own rules about usage.
There are ‘Royalty Free’ image libraries that offer images that you can use without payment [with a few restrictions] and many people with small websites use these services and are very happy with the non-exclusivity and often non-professionally produced images.
Now to the ‘problem’ and the Scam.
If you were to knowingly use an image library’s image without paying for it, or use one in a manner that is expressly forbidden then you would not be surprised to receive some stern reprimands from the owner, with demands for payment for the usage or a cease and desist-type letter. And, in most cases, you wouldn’t have to wait very long. These companies guard their Intellectual Copyright (IP) in just the same way that the shark-like Recording and Mootion Picture Industries do. They have web searching tools that spider the web looking for unauthorised use of their images.
But what if you got an image from a free site, or your website came with a template with pictures that later turned out to be copyrighted?
This is where you will have problems.
Some image libraries (Getty Images being one of the most aggressive) will send you a very threatening letter demanding that:
- You Cease and Desist from using the image, which they claim is theirs.
- You pay for prior usage of the image, normally at a vastly increased rate (eg. 10x) than normal usage would cost.
- You pay immediately or you will be sued for costs that will increase the longer you refuse to pay.
Warning! The law is not on your side in this. Ignorance of copyright theft is no excuse and they use the concept of ‘Strict Liability‘ which means that you can be found liable for an infringement regardless of your knowledge or intent of the infringement. What this means in practice is that EVEN THOUGH you did not know your image use was copyright infringement and EVEN THOUGH you take it down immediately you hear about it, you are still liable for usage costs, penalties, administration fees and interest. What these are seems to be up to the copyright owner, but I have seen cases where an image that would have cost $39 to use, resulted in a fee of over $500.
A more sinister part of this scam is that the copyright holders seem to be ‘seeding’ free/royalty free image libraries (or buying them outright as is the case with Getty Images and Stock.XCHNG) with pay-to-use images and then coming knocking later for money.
So it’s Extortion, right?
Ah yes. Legally they may be 100% correct in asserting their rights, but as a lawyer in the UK has recently found, the courts are not happy with bulk ‘speculative invoicing’ type court cases. I believe that it is immoral and malicious and extortion to operate in this way as a first resort and any company doing so should be shunned.
If you get caught by these pirates, my first instinct is to ignore them and they may just go away (after first removing the offending image from your universe of course). If they persist, let them take you to court. It actually appears that this is a hollow threat as there are few if any records of this ever happening. I suggest you write a letter (a real letter, with a stamp and certified and everything), telling them that you were unaware of the error, that you have corrected the error and that as far as you are concerned that is the end of the matter.
Here’s the original comment that made me do the research:
… Internet companies offer photos and pics for sale, asking a high fee (f. ex., $500).
At the same time, some of those photos and pics are placed in blogs and sites with no apparent connection to the original company. However, such items now appear with the indication “copyright free”, or just “free photos or pics”.
Periodically, such “ghost-sites or ghost -blog ” disappear, being replaced by new ones serving the same purposes.
People coming across such “free photos & pics” may place them in their company sites or personal blogs.
And then, the original company mails them a letter, demanding payment and compensation for the unauthorized use of their images.
Other links about this issue are here:
Getty Image Settlement Demand Letters
Sample letters from Getty about copyright infringement
A (UK) Lawyer who has handled this kind of issue.