What You need to know about copyright trolls

Introducing PicRights International – Copyright Trolls

Beware – Chucky the troll – photo by Eric Mclean for Unsplash

My Experience with the Copyright Trolls Begins

One morning, I discovered an email with odd-looking subject line in my email in my inbox: “Image License Inquiry for The Associated Press – Reference Number: 5971-8596-6720.”

The email was from PicRights International – a company I’d never heard of before. They claimed to be acting on behalf of the Associated Press (AP), and that they’d found imagery owned by AP on my copywriting website. They demanded to know whether I had a license to use this imagery. And if I didn’t, I had to remove the images from my website, or else.

But even if I removed the image from my website, they wanted money from me – 690 Canadian dollars for unauthorized usage of the image in the past.
Copyright Trolls Make Veiled Threats

If their language seems coercive and bullying, that’s because it is. They warned me to “resolve this time-sensitive issue within 14 days.” There was an implicit threat here that they’d take dire legal action against me if I didn’t’.
The email came with a screenshot of an image, its apparent catalogue number, and the location on my website where the image appeared.

No one likes to be bullied, so I was quite angry. But I searched for the image on my website to make sure what PicRights was telling the truth. There, buried within a portfolio containing my previous work assignments was a document I’d created for a company which required an image to illustrate a point. The image had been inadvertently downloaded from Google Images. As a precaution, I immediately removed the image.

As for PicRights, there was link on their website to the AP site, where there was a notice announcing that AP had hired PicRights as its “recovery partners.” PicRights acted in tandem with a law firm Higbee and Associates. A Google search revealed pages of alarming facts about PicRights. There were many 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.”

I also found posts on Reddit and Quora with many testimonials of people – in the UK, on the European mainland, in the US – who’d been terrorised by PicRights. This was obviously something more than just a scam. Even PicRights’ actions were despicable and unscrupulous, they were a real company, and their actions were technically legal.

What Do Copyright Trolls Like PicRights Do? – A History of Sleazy Copyright Trolling

Pierre-Nicholas Schwab is the owner of the Into the Minds marketing site, who has uncovered PicRights as a shadowy collection of small companies registered in various countries. The main company, PicRights Europe GmbH, is run by the Höfinger family, which owns the umbrella company Mediapro Mediamarketing.

According to the Swiss website Moneyhouse, PicRights was founded in 2007 and is headquartered in Freienbach, Switzerland. The writer Shannon Rawlins says that PicRights was incorporated in the US in 2016 and set up a London, UK branch in 2018. PicRights has a Canada office at 2 Bloor St. East, suite 3500, in Toronto.

What does PicRights do? It scans through the internet looking for copyrighted images which people have unintentionally used without getting permission.
Picrights tracks down the users and demands money from them. Usually, it’s way more than a regular license.

PicRights is universally despised as a “copyright troll” because of its methods of extortionist threats and psychological bullying. Their law firm Higbee and Associates are equally despised for their aggressive methods.

By charging arbitrarily high amounts, PicRights have made a tidy profit from their scummy business methods.

PicRights doesn’t always get its facts right. Many people have been threatened by PicRights for infringements on copyrighted images. And then these people discover that the images PicRights claims have been infringed don’t even match the images on the victims’ websites or blogs.

But the unfortunate fact about PicRights is they are not a scam. These bottom feeders are operating within the law.

What You Should Do If Contacted by Copyright Trolls Like PicRights

And so, what should you do if you get a nasty email from PicRights?

Here’s a three-stage response I’d recommend:

1. Ask Yourself: Is the PicRights’ Request Valid?
There are three possible options:

* Option 1 – You have the right to reproduce the image. In this case, PicRights has no claim.

* Option 2 – Perhaps the image which PicRights is claiming for isn’t the one you’ve used. Another end to PicRights’ claims.

* Option 3 – You unintentionally used an image without having rights.

If you’re not sure, go to the next stage.

2. Delete the image
Remove the image from your website immediately.

3. Hire a Lawyer Who Has Experience Dealing with PicRights
Some lawyers haven’t had experience with copyright trolls, so they’ll tell you to just pay whatever PicRights demands.

This is a wrong approach, of course. There are lawyers out there who’ve had lots of experience with PicRights and their sort. These lawyers know exactly how to handle them.

One such lawyer Darren Heitner of Heitner Legal. They’ve handled hundreds of these sorts of cases. Heitner either resolves things so that clients pay a MUCH smaller payment in exchange for a release of all claims, or in some cases, can even make sure that the client does not pay PicRights any money at all.

Darren says copyright trolls like PicRights are often willing to negotiate because it’s too much money and effort to escalate matters to law firms.

In my case, for a flat fee of U$135 (178 CAD), Darren got PicRights’ down to $350 to settle.

4. Assess Your Options before Paying
Carefully consider the original character of the reproduced image. PicRights assumes that courts will recognise the originality of the image. But there’s nothing less certain. It’s also possible to make a case for fair use. If you’ve used an image and commented on it, you have a strong case for fair use.

But whether you choose to negotiate or simply ignore emails from copyright trolls like PicRights, it will be your judgement call.

Just don’t be intimidated. Make sure that the image whose copyright they claim has been infringed is in fact the one they claim it is. They sometimes get their images mixed up.

Decide whether it’s worth your while to pay a much-reduced proportion of the copyright troll’s demands.

And if in doubt, reach out to good lawyer, like Darren Heitner, who can keep you free of copyright trolls – for good.

Prevention Is Better that Cure: Use Copyright-free Images

To avoid the hassle of dealing with scummy companies like PicRights altogether, use images that you or that people you know have created. Or use images from websites providing copyright-free stock photos for free.

Here’s a brief list:

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