How to Protect Yourself from Copyright Trolls

My Encounter with Online Bottom Feeders PicRights International

road sign warning of troll hazard and thus matching topic of the article which advises readers how to protect themselves against copyright trolls
Troll alert – photo by Mark Konig for Unsplash

It all started one Monday morning when I saw an email in my inbox with the ominous subject heading “Image License Inquiry for The Associated Press – Reference Number: 5971-8596-6720.” It appeared deadly serious and official.

For the past two months, I had been working in tandem with a web designer and writing content for a new website. Anyone who has built a website from scratch will understand how time-consuming this task is. Indeed, it can be low-key stressful to plan, figure out your website’s purpose, choose custom designs, and create written and graphic content for it, while making sure that it’s search engine optimized. As you know, it is vitally important to make sure that your images are copyright free and that your written content is completely original. You can’t just copy and paste text from other websites or nab a photo from Google Images to display on your website. We are all very well aware that such content belongs to the websites or the people who took the photos. We can’t just use this content without permission.

A Sinister Boilerplate Email

But with all the things you need to be aware when building a strong website, it’s very easy to forget a crucial step or make an inadvertent mistake. And so, that Monday morning when I saw the vaguely menacing subject heading, I quickly clicked open the email. In the email, a company I’d never heard of before – PicRights International – claimed to be acting on behalf of the Associated Press (AP). To add legitimacy to their claim they provided a link to the AP website, where a notice announces that AP has hired PicRights along with its “recovery partners” and attorneys “including the law firm Higbee & Associates.”

The email then informed me that PicRights had noticed that imagery for which AP owns the copyright had been displayed on my website. I had not obtained a license to use this imagery, the email continued. If I did in fact have such a license, the writers demanded that I send it to them.

If I did not have this license, they ordered me to remove the images from my website. But my removal of the imagery from my website would not resolve this issue, they warned. “We also require payment of compensation in the amount of CAD$690.00 for the past unauthorized usage of this imagery.

The Extortioner’s Pretence of Compassion

They urged me to “resolve this time-sensitive issue within 14 days.” And then, affecting to be reasonable and compassionate, they added, “We fully appreciate that this is a very difficult time.  With that in mind, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter with you, in the hope that we can achieve a resolution.”

At the bottom of the email, they provided a screenshot of an image, its apparent catalogue number, and the location on my website where the image appeared.

My Reaction to the Veiled Threats

After reading this email, I felt as if someone had pummelled me. But once I had calmed down, I noticed the highly irregular nature of the email, its bullying tone, and veiled threats. The opening of the PicRights email was strange: it announced, “PicRights is not a law firm and I am not a lawyer.” But the link it provided to the AP site made it clear that even if PicRights was not a legal firm, it acted in tandem with attorneys, particularly the law firm Higbee and Associates. I’ll have more to say about this law firm later.

Peremptory Demand for Money

The request for immediate removal of the image seemed reasonable: it’s what one would expect from someone who legitimately felt that their copyright had been infringed on. I could well imagine a real copyright holder writing an irate letter to me saying, “Hey! That’s my image you’ve got on your website. Take it down right now, okay!” This is the authentic sort of language you’d encounter in legitimate cease-and-desist letters. Such letters are the normal first step in legitimate disputes over copyright infringement. Typically, in real cases like this, the producer of the image would just ask for credit and no money would be exchanged. However, for PicRights, this was not enough. They were making an arbitrary demand for money. This is definitely not something most people would expect. How on earth, I wondered, did they come up with the random-seeming amount of C$690?

Although the PicRights email did not make an explicit threat against me, their insistence that I resolve the issue within 14 days, and the link they provided to the AP website containing the details of their attorneys and the law firm Higbee and Associates made it clear what steps they were likely to take next.

As a precaution, I immediately removed the image for which PicRights claimed to be acting on behalf of AP. I then did some online research about this company. What I found alarmed me. A simple Google search uncovered page after page of articles with such headings as “PicRights Ltd: the shady company hounding journalists,” “PicRights+AFP: a well-established copy trolling operation,” and “PicRights is persecuting websites and bloggers.” There were posts on Reddit and Quora with countless horrific testimonials of people – in the UK, on the European mainland, in the US – who’d been harassed and terrorised by PicRights. Reading through these accounts, I realised that I was not dealing with a simple scam. PicRights was a real company operating (barely) within the law – even if they were despicable and unscrupulous.

Who are PicRights and What Do They Do?

According to Pierre-Nicholas Schwab, owner of the Into the Minds marketing site, PicRights is a shadowy collection of small companies registered in various countries. The main company seems to be PicRights Europe GmbH run by the Höfinger family, which owns the umbrella company Mediapro Mediamarketing. The Swiss website Moneyhouse states that PicRights was founded in 2007 and is headquartered in Freienbach, Switzerland. The writer Shannon Rawlins, meanwhile, reveals that the company was incorporated in the US in 2016 and set up its London, UK branch in 2018. In Canada, PicRights has an office on 2 Bloor St. East, suite 3500, in Toronto. PicRights also has offices in Italy, Brazil, and South Africa.

What does this opaque entity do? PicRights uses robots or AI to scan through the internet looking for copyrighted images which have been used without the owners’ permission, and they then track down the users and demand money from them. The payment they demand is usually way out of proportion to a regular user license price.

A Very Unsavoury Reputation

Over the years, due to their use of extortionist threats and psychological bullying methods, PicRights have gained the well-deserved reputation as a “copyright troll.” The fact that they use firms like Higbee and Associates, infamous for their pattern of unscrupulous and predatory methods of extorting money from individuals, only underlines the unsavoury nature of PicRights’ business practices.

Their website boasts that their objective is “to resolve copyright infringements quickly and fairly, without resorting to the courts.” But more often than not, PicRights are the ones who have created those very disputes themselves. And, as their arbitrary demand of C$690 from me suggests, they seem to have made a tidy profit from this nasty process of achieving “resolution.”

As Shannon Rawlins points out, the “compliance officers” try to harass and intimidate the people who’ve received notices from PicRights with nonstop emails threatening legal action unless victims contact them to “resolve” the issue. They don’t sue their victims themselves; they instead use thuggish law firms like Higbee and Associates in the U.S. and Canada and Burness Paull in the UK.

Does PicRights Really Represent the Copyright Owners It Says It Does?

When you visit the PicRights website, you’ll that they have some big international clients such as The Canadian Press, Agence France Press, Reuters, AP, and others. It seems that these companies really have used PicRights to monitor and settle copyright infringements for them. While it may seem shocking that these major and supposedly reputable clients would want their brands associated with a company as disreputable as PicRights, Shannon Rawlins and others explain that in many cases the company or individual owning the copyright is not even involved.

Even though PicRights represents very big clients, it’s obvious that they do not operate in a legitimate and ethical way. Many people on Reddit, Quora, and other forums have complained about getting threatening emails demanding payment for copyright infringements for images that they have in fact properly licensed. Often the images PicRights claims have been infringed, don’t even match the images on the victims’ websites or blogs.

However, as ethically unsavoury and despicable as their methods are, PicRights is, unfortunately, not a scam. What these bottom feeders are doing is mostly legal.

What to Do If You Get an Email or Letter from PicRights?

And so, how should you react after getting a nasty email from PicRights? After an online consultation with a lawyer and my own online research, I adopted a three-stage response.

  1. Weighed Whether the PicRights’ Request Was Valid
    At this stage, I considered three possible options:
  • Option 1 – I had the right to reproduce this image. In this case, PicRights’ claim would stop right there.
  • Option 2 – on the other hand, the image for which PicRights was claiming rights, wasn’t the one I used. Again, this would have put a stop to the case.
  • Option 3 – I had, in fact, inadvertently used an image without having rights.

I wasn’t actually sure. It’s possible that the image PicRights showed in a screenshot wasn’t even registered with the US Copyright Office or the Canadian Intellectual Property Office.

But since I wasn’t sure, I moved on to the next stage.

  1. Removed the image
    Since I couldn’t be sure, I immediately removed the image from my website.
  2. Hired a Lawyer Who Has Experience Dealing with PicRights
    While researching PicRights and their unsavoury business, I was lucky enough to come across an article written by an attorney who has lots of experience protecting clients against PicRights and other predator companies claiming intellectual property infringement. Darren Heitner of Heitner Legal has handled hundreds of such cases. Based on the details of each case, he either resolves things so that clients pay a MUCH smaller payment in exchange for a release of all claims, or in some cases, ensures that the client does not pay PicRights any money at all.

As he explains in his article, unscrupulous companies like PicRights are only too willing to negotiate simply because it’s too costly and time-consuming to escalate matters to law firms.

Darren charged me a flat fee of U$135 (178 CAD), and, after four months of negotiation, got PicRights down to $350 to settle.

  1. Assessed My Options before Paying
    I resented having pay the PicRights bottom feeders $350, but I consoled myself that for peace of mind, it was still a lot better than the $690 CAD they were originally demanding.

But you should still carefully consider the original character of the reproduced image. In demanding financial payment and threatening legal action, PicRights were assuming that courts would recognise the originality of the work reproduced. However, as others have noted, there is nothing less certain. It’s also possible to make a case for fair use. If you used the image and made commentary about it, you have a strong case for fair use.

But ultimately, whether you choose to negotiate a greatly reduced settlement or to simply ignore bullying emails from copyright trolls like PicRights will be a judgement call.

You should, first of all, make sure that the image whose copyright they claim has been infringed is in fact the one they claim it is. They’ve been known to get their images mixed up. Once you’ve decided to remove the image, assess whether it’s worth your peace of mind to pay a much-reduced proportion of the copyright troll’s extortionate demands for a payoff.

Most of all, remember there are savvy, fair-minded lawyers out there who can help to get the bottom feeders off your back – for good.

The Best Way to Avoid This Annoyance: Use Copyright-free Images

The best thing you can do to avoid ever having to deal with extortionate companies like PicRights is to use images that you or that people you know have created. Or you could use images available on websites which provide copyright-free stock photos for free.

Here’s a brief list of some of these websites:

My favourite among these sites is Unsplash. Why? Because it’s easy to use and has a wide variety of high-quality images.

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