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Directive has been serving the Oneonta area since 1993, providing IT Support such as technical helpdesk support, computer support, and consulting to small and medium-sized businesses.

Don’t Fall for These Image Copyright Infringement Scams

Don’t Fall for These Image Copyright Infringement Scams

Of all the shady scams on the Internet, image copyright infringement scams are among the worst. Let’s talk about what they are, who they victimize, and how you can beat them.

What is a Copyright Infringement Scam?

A copyright infringement scam involves a third-party, claiming to be a law firm or lawyer representing the copyright owner of an image you are using on your website. They send you emails or reach out to you from a contact form on your website stating that you have violated copyright law by unauthorized use of an image that doesn’t belong to you. They usually give you a few pages of legal mumbo jumbo, including terms that usually more or less say that removing the image now doesn’t solve the issue, that you owe for damages just for using the image, etc. Finally, they let you know that you can conveniently settle outside of court if you quickly hand over a large sum of money (as if it’s some huge favor to you).

There have been a lot of variations of this scam over the years, and some seem much more legitimate than others, and some of them are actually from legitimate, practicing law firms. Others are much more low-effort and probably just done by bots or scam artists. Some are simply a means to distribute malware.

All of them are scams.

Copyright Infringement Scam Examples

Let’s take a quick look at a few examples we’ve seen over the years. Please note that for all of these examples, we are blurring out any contact information that has possibly been stolen, URLs that could be harmful, and information about the recipient.

Blatant Malware Spreading Scam

This particular scam tends to come in through a contact form on your website, but it’s possible it could also be sent as an email.

Our friend Joe here, who allegedly works at Trello, from the nation of… Chigbe? Anyway, there are a few other major giveaways that prove that this correspondence is a scam.

  1. Why would someone use a website form to reach out to a company accusing them of a crime?
  2. The general text feels a little off, with misspellings and an odd flow that doesn’t seem like it was written professionally.
  3. There is a big mysterious link in the middle of the text to “prove” that the recipient is guilty. This link (although it’s redacted in our screenshot) has red flags that shows that it is potentially harmful. 

As it turns out, our security team checked the destination of the link and was able to determine that it takes you to malware. There was no real claim being made here, it was just a trick to get your computer infected.

We’ve seen plenty of variations of this email, often claiming to come from companies like Netsuite, MailChimp, Freshbooks, HubSpot, Zoho, and Slack as well.

Here’s another example, but this time the scammer is claiming that they own the image. 

Both emails follow a similar playbook - they are vague about your website and situation, but try to make up for it with a big confusing link claiming to be proof, and then a lot of legal text about copyright law.

Again, the link in this case goes to a cloud hosting service that downloads malware onto your computer. The claim is absolutely false and it’s just trying to scare you into getting your network infected.

If you get an email or form submission like this, don’t click the link or download the attachment. It’s likely dangerous.

A good way to check for these usually is to take some of the text and Google it. Note that the scammers will change names and some other info to try to throw people off, but most of the time if you get scammed like this, other people have reported it online too, especially when the scam is spreading malware.

Copyright Infringement Settlement Demand Scam

Let’s take a look at something that will look less blatant and more official. There is going to be a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with an example.

This example looks much more official and professional compared to the malware-spreading variants. There’s actually a good reason for this; this correspondence is actually coming from an actual business. 

As we break down this correspondence, they definitely do a lot more to convince you that this is a legitimate request. They provide links to the page the image is on, screenshots of the image, and they provide a specific case number, and a link to their website where you can supposedly review more information about the claim.

Finally, they go into settling. They are trying to get you to settle outside of court and to pay them directly for the image on your website, which in this case is a yearly fee and a single payment for compensation.

Before we get too far into things, it’s worth pointing out that this correspondence is referring to a legally licensed, royalty-free image that was legally obtained from Adobe Stock. There was absolutely no foul play here whatsoever, nor was there any accident. 

We even reached out to Adobe’s copyright team to verify that everything was above board.

What is going on here? Based on a little investigation, Copytrack is located in Germany (Berlin, to be precise). That doesn’t make them less legitimate as a business, but what they are doing certainly throws up some red flags. Their Google reviews are full of people claiming that Copytrack made false claims of copyright infringement. Copytrack doesn’t claim to be a law firm, but does claim they are protecting the rights of photographers, even if those photographers aren’t actually clients of Copytrack. They use image-matching AI and web crawling tools to look for potential misuse, and then send scary correspondence to get you to pay them.

From here, they are relying on your fear of getting sued to encourage you to hand over a bunch of money that you might not even owe. They know that small business owners don’t want to get wrapped up in an international court case and will throw money at a threat, sort of the same way that cybercriminals know that a business owner will likely pay a ransom to get access to their data again.

In cases where we’ve seen this happen, we have verified that the image was officially licensed from Adobe Stock.

Adobe Stock images are considered royalty-free. This means that once an image license is obtained, the image can be used multiple times without incurring a fee. This is ideal for websites and marketing, because usually a marketing campaign will involve sending a deliverable to hundreds or thousands of recipients, and using an image on the web gets really dicey because you might have it on a blog post, but also display that blog post on the homepage with the image or share it out to social media. Royalty-free is usually the way to go for small businesses as it simplifies the usage of the image, provided that you actually licensed it based on the terms provided.

A third-party looking at your website or a piece of your marketing materials will have no idea whether or not you legally obtained an image, especially if it were royalty-free. If a third-party owned the rights to an image that was NOT royalty-free, then they could look at everyone they licensed the image to, review the terms and see if the usage falls outside of that.

Royalty-free images aren’t a free-for-all. There are still terms, but the terms tend to be much more broad to offer small businesses the flexibility they need to use images for their website and marketing.

Copyright Extortion Emails

Here’s another example:

PicRights is another organization that is similar to Copytrack. They’ve been around longer (Copytrack has only been around for about two years, but PicRights has existed for several years, and was incorporated in 2016 in the US. They’ve been around long enough and have been extremely aggressive, so there is plenty of dirt to dig up on them on the Internet. Like Copytrack, it’s a legitimate business, but they are doing some shady stuff to try to scare small businesses and content creators into handing over money. They are somehow associated with Higbee and Associates, an alleged law firm in Canada, but we won’t need to get that deep into the weeds in this blog post. All you need to know is that, like Copytrack, they will scour the internet for images that might be owned, whether the owner is their client or not, and blanket out predatory correspondence to try to scare you into settling before they escalate the situation.

In our experience, once a recipient responds to the extortion email to prove they have a pulse, PicRights/Higbee and Associates springs into action and starts sending out physical mail as well, and really start to escalate to get you to pay thousands of dollars for an image that they might not even represent, may have been obtained legally, or might be covered under fair use.

Let’s Talk About Copyright Law

Without going too deep, your organization needs to make sure your website and marketing doesn’t violate copyright laws. Royalty-free images, like those on Adobe Stock are extremely affordable (we’re talking less than ten dollars each, although Adobe does make this a little confusing with their subscriptions and credit system, but you can save a lot of money if you subscribe).

You need to educate your staff on not using images they get off of a Google search or some random website. Don’t trust Google Images’ licensing options where you can display images using a Creative Commons license either. It’s just not worth the risk and hassle when you can spend a few dollars to ensure you are going by the books.

If you want to use images from a photographer or artist, get written permission from them first.

In the past, we’ve also seen organizations suffer because the web designers they commissioned to build their website didn’t source images properly, so you should always rely on a reputable web designer and make sure you are aware of where the images on your site are coming from. In our experience, we’ve even seen website themes and plugins come with images that violate copyright law. Of course, you can’t really know unless you were the one who licensed the image, so again, don’t use any images you don’t license yourself, or have a written agreement with the person who created the image.

What About Fair Use?

Fair use is definitely worth mentioning when talking about copyright infringement. Fair use a claim you might be able to make when using someone else’s image without prior permission. There is a lot of gray area here, but the idea is if your usage of the image is to educate or provide commentary, and not to make money from the usage of the image or undermine the copyright holder’s ability to earn money from the image, it might fall under fair use. Fair use covers a lot of different types of media, so it also covers things like parody, remixes, the usage of sound clips in documentaries, thumbnail images on search engines, quotes in publications, and a lot of other things.

For example, Saturday Night Live performs a skit where John Wick is an IT guy who has to solve an impossible problem (Lorne Michaels, call me!), that falls under fair use because it’s parody. If we then write a blog about the skit, and talk about how a business can prevent some of the “impossible IT problems” John Wick had to be called in for, we could use a couple images from SNL, provided we credited them, to make our point. 

Still, if you simply aren’t sure, just use licensed images. Avoid violating copyright.

What Do I Do If I Get a Copyright Infringement Email?

First, take a deep breath. Nobody is going to sue you over email, especially if they are from another country. There is a lot more of a process for this to happen.

If you do a few Google searches, you’ll find lots of people who get these types of scam emails, and the general advice is to ignore them, but to also make sure you simply follow copyright law. You’ll find journalists and bloggers who weren’t able to get any answers from the entities issuing the copyright infringement claims. You’ll find a lot of frustrated people who ended up shelling out thousands of dollars to make them go away, and plenty of cases where these so-called protectors of copyright law were out of line.

We’re not lawyers, but our advice has always been to ignore these types of emails and correspondence. Unless they are contacting you through legitimate means, you should always be skeptical. The same goes for when you get an email from the Geek Squad with an invoice for $900, when you haven’t been to Best Buy in over five years.

You should review the correspondence. Take a moment to look into it and make sure what you are doing is above board. Contact your web designer and have them check on things too. If you have employees who update and manage your website and social media, they should be looped in to make sure they aren’t causing potential problems.

Whatever you do, consider the email unsolicited, which means it’s at least potentially dangerous. Don’t click on any links, as they could either lead to malware, or be set up in a way that as soon as you click a link, the sender knows you are paying attention and they should spend some money on direct mail or other tactics to try to continue to scare you out of your money.

It’s a messy situation that’s wearing a thin disguise to make it look like they are defending the photographers of the world, but in reality, these predatory tactics are causing a lot of pain and frustration for small businesses and non-profit organizations. We hope this article helps spread some light on this. If you have any questions or want to talk about this with one of our web design/marketing experts, give us a call at 607.433.2200.