Don’t Let Your Organization Get Bullied by Copyright Lawyers
No business owner wants to deal with potential lawsuits, but over the last few years several companies have been constructed for the sole purpose of crawling the web and finding businesses to send copyright claims to. While copyright laws are important, these businesses aren’t looking to defend the sanctity of intellectual property, they are predators trying to squeeze a little money out of small businesses like yours.
Remember back in the early 2000s when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) made headlines by suing a bunch of grandmothers, children, homeless people, and the deceased over illegally downloading songs off of services like Napster, Limewire, and Kazaa?
This sort of feels the same way.
It works like this: They have automated tools that constantly scour the web looking for websites and social media accounts that are using images that are owned or distributed by one of a handful of major image repositories. When they find a site, the tools look up the email and mailing addresses on the website or associated with the domain registration, and start sending threatening letters requesting that you pay large sums of money in order to settle things outside of court.
Let’s look at the root of the problem:
Many Organizations Break Copyright Law with Their Websites and Marketing
The only reason these jpeg ambulance chasers exist is because it is a pretty widespread problem, and it’s easy for them to find organizations that might be breaking the law. In our experience, this is especially common with smaller orgs and non-profits, where the organization might have a volunteer or intern handle pushing out little website updates.
Here’s the thing; over 3 billion images are shared online each and every day, and most of them (more than 80 percent) are “stolen.”
Okay, but what does that mean?
When someone shares a funny meme on Facebook, the image is usually someone else’s intellectual property. That funny picture of the Minion saying, “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee,” belongs to some other entity. Essentially, someone else took that property, slapped some text over it, and distributed it without written permission of the copyright owner. The same goes for an artsy photo of a forest adorned with an inspirational quote from Steve Jobs. You didn’t take the photo, and you probably don’t have explicit permission to use it.
But then there’s Fair Use. Copyright law is pretty complex, so we’re only going to be covering a small area, but fair use is when you use copyrighted material without permission in a way that’s legal. Essentially you can reproduce some parts of a copyrighted work when you are commenting or critiquing it, or when you are parodying it.
Think of it like this; if you are reviewing a book or summarizing a report or study, you can take a few lines or quotes from it to critique it, or use a little of that content to help get to your own point, but you can’t paste huge swathes of the content onto your website and assume that you aren’t doing something wrong.
The idea is that your work offers some sort of benefit to the general public, and using that copyrighted material enhances your cause.
This gets even more complicated when it comes to marketing—you can’t just use someone else’s intellectual property in order to sell your products and services, and you definitely can’t simply sell someone else’s work (like printing it on a t-shirt or mug).
The problem is that many business owners and employees will just use images and media they find from doing a Google search. They might even assume that it’s okay because they aren’t directly making money off of the image, and just using the image alongside their content.
Google Images Search isn’t a free repository of images for you to use. It’s displaying images Google crawls across the web, and showing you what websites they are on. Those images likely belong to someone else. Even if you tell Google to only display images with a Creative Commons license, you can’t be 100% sure what the policy is and whether or not you are allowed to use that image in any way. We’ll get to how and where you can legally obtain images later on in this blog post.
I’ve Received a Copyright Infringement Claim, What Should I Do?
First of all, it’s important to remember that these companies are trying to scare the pants off of you…or to put it better, they are trying to scare the wallet out of your pants.
They come at you aggressively with very strong verbiage telling you that you are in violation of copyright law and that in order to prevent litigation, you need to quickly settle by paying hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of damages for using an image that isn’t yours.
They’ll often screenshot the page the image is on and provide a URL as proof, and tell you that removing the image from your website isn’t enough and that the damage is already done.
Then, they’ll provide you with a specific link to go to in order to contact them or make a payment or to dispute the claim. Don’t click on this link.
For one thing, many copyright infringement claims are phishing attempts, especially if they come in through a web form. There has been a huge rash of these over the last couple of years, and the link tends to lead to malware or some other danger. Whenever you get an email you didn’t expect, you should tread lightly and not click the links until you are absolutely sure it is legitimate.
In addition, if you are being targeted by one of these entities that are robotically scouring websites and sending automated emails, clicking on their specialized links is the first indicator to them that they got your attention. If you click on the link in the email, they’ll know you have a pulse, and they will use that to try to scare you even more into paying them. Usually, up until that point, it’s just all automated. Once you start interacting, you’ll become a much warmer lead in their system—it’s basically marketing, but with the threat of litigation.
Spend Some Time to Review the Claim and Look for Other Possible Violations
Here’s the thing; if you do get a claim like this, there could be some legitimacy behind it. The automated tools these companies use to blast out violation letters don’t understand or look for whether or not you are protected under fair use. They see the image, they email or mail you a threatening letter, and hope you pay them and settle outside of court.
If you did upload an image to your website or social media that you shouldn’t be using, you need to fix that as quickly as possible. The tone we’ve been taking in this blog post might sound like we’re saying you shouldn’t treat copyright law seriously, so let me make it clear: you should be taking copyright law seriously. You just should take these aggressive, spammy copyright claims with a grain of salt. They are trying to extort your organization for money. In fact, we’ve heard plenty of cases where a business reached out to the actual photographer of an image and told them what was going on, only to find out that the lawyers sending the letters were not associated with the photographer at all. In many, many cases, it is an extortion racket.
But it is pointing out that you are potentially doing something illegal. Make sure you address that internally.
Check to See if Other People Have Received Similar Claims Online
With any unsolicited, suspicious email, you should think twice before clicking on anything or downloading any attachments, but you can search the web with some text from within the message, or the email address, or the name and address of the company, to see what other people are saying about it. You’ll likely find lots of posts for some of the more common companies that blast out these violation emails.
The same applies if it’s a physical mailer too. Your business contact information is usually public, so it’s usually not difficult for their automated tools to scrape the address from your domain registry or right off your website in order to send you a threatening extortion letter.
It Turns Out You Accidently Used an Image You Weren’t Supposed To…Now What?
Don’t panic. It’s usually best to reach out to your web designer first and see if they have experience helping clients that run into the issue. Each case is going to be a little different depending on how the image was used, where it came from, and other factors. Your web designer can also make sure the image is properly removed and replaced on the website, which is a step you definitely should take, especially if you don’t know for sure if you have the rights to use it.
Your web designer might suggest contacting your lawyer too, which is definitely a good idea.
Don’t respond to extortion letters or emails, and don’t pay just to make them go away.
How to Prevent Copyright Infringement in the First Place
We can’t stress enough—we don’t support image theft, and your organization needs to make sure you aren’t violating copyright laws when using your website, social media, and other marketing.
There are definitely safe repositories to get images for your website and other marketing that are legal and inexpensive. Technically, there are also free sites out there that claim to provide royalty free images for commercial and non-profit use, but we won’t even go as far to recommend that, simply because it’s best to just be safe and make absolutely sure you are being accountable.
We recommend Adobe Stock, especially for organizations that know they will need a number of image assets every month, as the service is more cost effective when you subscribe, as opposed to purchasing credits when you need it. Most of the images on Adobe Stock are royalty free, which means the images are available to license and aren’t actually owned by anyone.
You’ll want to read and understand Adobe’s licensing terms, but generally this is the most reasonable way to get a huge repository of images to use for your marketing without putting your business at risk.
Your other option is to take all the images yourself and produce all of your graphics yourself, or get written permission to use every image and graphic you want to use from whoever created it.
If you are allowing someone else within your company to update your website or manage your social media, you need to give them the ability to acquire the image assets they need to do their job effectively, or else they might come up with their own way and put your business in a tough situation. Providing them with an Adobe Stock subscription and making sure they understand that they can’t violate copyright law will go a long way.
Do you need help with your web presence or your marketing? We work with organizations of all sizes to help them grow and expand and look amazing online. If you want us to help you, give us a call today at 607.433.2200.