Have you ever had a letter from the firm calling themselves “PicRights”? They, and a small number of other firms, scour the Internet for unlicensed use of images owned by the photographers and copyright owners who have signed up to their service. If they find one on your website, they send you a letter asking for what usually looks like an exorbitant sum in order to settle the potential claim for copyright infringement.
They’re not very much liked. Their online reviews make fun (if somewhat distressing) reading. Clearly they have caused a lot of upset among small businesses. We’ve seen that first-hand, we get a steady stream of enquiries from people who received one of their letters. The usual question is “how do I get out of this?”.
There’s a simple answer to that question, which is to make sure that all the images you use on your site are either provided to you free-to-use, or that you have the copyright owner’s permission to use them. Note that permissions can be limited to particular types of use, so make sure you get the right scope of use, too. However, that answer isn’t terribly helpful when the problem is a past use which you’ve already made. It’s roughly equivalent to being asked for directions to somewhere and answering* that here isn’t really the best place to start from.
That is the best answer, though. If your website or social media channel has even the slightest commercial aspect, then you’re regarded as fair game for these claims. In that case, then, always check where the images are from and make sure you’re allowed to use them.
If you do trip up, though, it might reassure you to know that you’re not alone. Indeed, there was an instance when we helped take action against a London law firm who describe themselves as “one of the UK’s leading specialists in intellectual property law”, a “highly regarded intellectual property law firm that specialises in copyright” who have a “team of expert copyright lawyers”. Even they got it wrong, once. One of us here at Downing IP was browsing the web one morning and noticed an article that the solicitors had written about an appeal result that we had secured for our client, Monsta Pizza. He forwarded it to me because (in his opinion) by trying to take a neutral, passive tone, the article had ended up reading as if they were the ones that had won the case, instead of us. So he forwarded it to me. What stood out to me was the photo that they had used square and central in the article – it was mine!
The photo shows the two directors of the client, standing outside the Intellectual Property Office in London before one of the Hearings in the case. They asked me to take their photo so that they could insert their mascot, the Monsta, into the photo and use it in their social media. Sadly, the Monsta had been busy that day so he wasn’t able to make it to the Hearing, hence the need to digitally insert him. So the legal analysis around the copyright in the image was that I, as the photographer, was the author and first copyright owner of the base photo, and that the edited version (including the Monsta) was therefore a work of joint authorship (the client and I) and copyright in that image was thus jointly owned.
Neither of us had any recollection of granting any consent to the solicitors to use the image. I’m pretty sure that if a direct competitor like them had asked for permission to use the image, then I’d have given them short shrift! So off went the missive to the solicitor firm, pointing out their mistake.
I’ve never seen a web page be taken down so quickly in my life… they also agreed to make a significant contribution to my client’s coffers. They did suggest confidentiality terms around the settlement, but (frankly) we’d have needed much more cash on the table for that to be an option. So I can say who it was… get in touch if you’re interested!
Going back to PicRights, there are things you can do in response to one of their letters. Check whether you have a licence to use the images – mistakes can be made. Ask them to verify ownership of copyright and that they are acting for the copyright owner. Have a look at the history of the image (Google™ is your friend) to see if there’s anything odd around its origin. If everything checks out, though, you’re going to have to cough up. They will negotiate on the figure, but it will still be a lot more than buying a licence would have been. Then, once that’s done, check every other image on all of your websites to make sure that you can prove your right to use them – and if you can’t take them down as well and replace them with something legit.
*yes, I did indeed say that once, before I learnt about the correct order being to think first, speak second…
Til next time, stay safe and legal, and may you never hear from PicRights….