Bloggers Beware

First of all, I want to apologize to those who are subscribers that you received several notices from my blog today. I was purging my blog of any images that I don't remember where they came from. This system sends out notices whenever I update any blog posts that were created in the old system. This post will explain everything.

I had a rude awakening on May 6 when I received a nasty letter from Alamy a "License Compliance Company" in Seattle, Washington. You can click on the link to read a pdf copy of the letter.

My first reaction was embarrassment, of course. I realized that I really didn't have permission to use the image in question. I thought my blog was not "big" enough that anyone would come after me for such a thing.

Wrong. Companies troll the internet, looking for "violations."

I thought that if I insert a link to the site where I copied it from, it was considered fair use.

Wrong. I've been receiving an education on what is considered "fair use" and this doesn't ensure anything. Follow this link for more information about fair use.

The site where I found this image had an open invitation to take any part of their blog and distribute it elsewhere. I thought they owned the image.

Wrong. Without writing and asking them permission for it, there was no way for me to know who owned the image.

I thought I had as much right as anyone to the image because it was of a group of young Amish people playing volleyball, with the net stretched between two buggies. I figured if anything, the photographer could get in trouble for taking a photo of people who had obviously not given permission for the photo to be taken.

Wrong. Federal law governs copyrights, while state law governs whether someone has permission from the subjects to publish a work.

I thought because I don't profit from my blog…

Wrong again. It does help some in a court case if I can show that I didn't profit from the image. I merely used it on the blog post about Amish youth, which was for educational purposes. But it does not prove innocence.

I should have known better. But my embarrassment at having been caught is not as great as my indignation for the way people who have made an honest mistake are being treated.

 

I went back to this site where I found the photo. I found this notice again at the bottom of their page:

 

Permissions: Please feel free to pass on, reproduce and distribute any material on Daily Encouragement Net, in part or in whole, in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way or charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. It is our desire to spread this material, not protect or restrict it. I do request that you keep the contact, copyright and subscription information intact.

I also saw this notice, which gave me the impression they owned the rights to the photo:

A word about the Amish and photos: The Amish vary in how strict they take the prohibition of facial photos.  However based on my conversation with Amish friends they consider the inevitability of having their photos taken when they are out in public, especially in touristy eastern Lancaster County.  But like most of us would they resent the paparazzi type gawking photographer. When going onto their turf I purposefully leave my camera unless I am invited to bring it. We also often take photos when we are driving about (Brooksyne does from the passenger side)…

I got in touch with the blog writer to ask permission to use the photo, and he referred me to this site. He mentioned that he might have gotten it through an email. He must have, for I could not find that image on the site to save my life. Nonetheless, I sent an email to the second site to ask for permission, and never heard back.

My first response to Samantha Clemens at Alamy was not very professional, I have to admit. I sent it before I knew any of the above. It sounds like a child on a playground trying her best to stand up to a bully:

Dear Alamy,
 
I'm sorry for using the image you referenced. I don't remember seeing any indication that it was copyrighted, or I wouldn't have used it. I have taken it off my blog.
 
I will not, however, be paying you anything. And if you pursue the matter, I will be charging you a fee for appropriating the culture I was born and raised in, for it seems you are trying to profit from images of the Amish. Did you have THEIR permission? Seems only fair that you should have a "valid license for use of image" if you are going to require that of others.
 
Consider the matter settled. Otherwise I will pursue it in court and you will not win.
 
Saloma Furlong

I received another letter back, even nastier than the first:

Dear Saloma Furlong,
 
Under the amended US Copyright Act, works created after March 1, 1989 a copyright exists automatically from the moment that a photograph is taken. Our clients have contracts with contributing photographers who are the sole copyright holders, not the subjects in the photograph.
 
Since the copyright infringement has already occurred, payment for that unauthorized use is necessary. We are acting on behalf of our represented photographers who are entitled to compensation for the use of their intellectual property.
 
Under US copyright law, it is up to the owner of the copyright to determine which or any infringement actions to pursue. Any previous inaction does not affect the rights of the copyright owner toward future acts of infringement. Therefore, our client has not lost the copyright to this work and can still pursue this matter of infringement.
 
Federal copyright law grants certain legal protections to the owners of copyrighted works and allows the owners to pursue legal remedies in the court system for violations of the federal copyright law. Most of these legal remedies are civil remedies, which mean that you can be sued for violating the law. Should we choose to pursue further legal action, all of our actions will be conducted within the confines of the law. However, we would like to try to avoid costing you the expense of going to court over this matter, which is why we are trying to settle the issue with you now.
 
Samantha Clemens
License Compliance Services, Alamy
P: 1.855.387.8725 E: lcs@alamy.com
605 Fifth Avenue South, Suite 400
Seattle, WA 98104

I love that last line, don't you? So condescending and I now know they don't really want to go to court — not for my sake but their own. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

At some point, I realized I should probably consult with my son, Paul, who is a lawyer before responding again. He thought not responding was possibly the best strategy, but he suggested that if I want to respond, should I ask them for proof that the image was copyrighted, and that they represent the artist. The letter I received back with bogus attachments gave me no new information and claimed a confidentiality agreement with the client. To which I responded:

Samantha Clemens,

Without proof that you represent the copyright holder of the photo in question, or that the photo is even copyrighted, there is no way for me to know whether you have the authority that you say you do. Therefore I will no longer be communicating with you.

Saloma Furlong

I sent this on June 1. I've not heard from Ms. Clemens since. But I have found out there are thousands and thousands of people who have gotten such letters. There is a website with much good information about what to do if you get one: Extortion Letter Info (ELI).

After reading quite a bit about Getty Images, I was still puzzled about one thing. The example letters on this site looked identical to the one I received, and yet the name of the company was different. Then I read somewhere that Getty Images was also operating under the name "Picscout" (and now I cannot find it again). But that still wasn't "Alamy." Then I found someone had published his extortion letter on the site. His letter had the exact same address, phone number, and payment information (to Picscout) as my letter! It seems Getty Images operates under many aliases.

I was encouraged by something ELI's lawyer, Oscar Michelen wrote:

As of this writing, about 1% of Getty's catalog has been registered.  That means in about 99% of the cases, Getty cannot claim statutory damages and may not even be able to get automatic Federal Court jurisdiction, which also requires registration. A copyright holder seeking actual damages, can only get the lost value for the image; they are not entitled to incidental fees and costs.

At the time Michelen wrote this page, Getty Images had not yet sued anyone, even though they had threatened many. That has changed. They apparently sued for a single image violation and won the case. It is thought by many that they chose their opponent, which happened to be another law firm that did not put up a fight. Their aim was allegedly to set precedent for other single image cases.

This is not about justice or protecting their clients' rights — it's about greedy people filling their pockets. It's enough to make me want to do civil disobedience to foil their best-laid plans.

I would like to see a full-scale investigation of Getty Images (and all its aliases), to find out if there are actual clients behind the letters they send out. Since they claim confidentiality, what is to stop them from sending out letters and keeping 100% of the "take" when the recipients feel bullied into paying?

Now that I know more about how easily one can violate copyrights without meaning to, I started wondering about the videos I've embedded on my blog from You Tube. There was no way to know if there were any violations in those. To be safe, I went back and took off those I've already posted and I will give links from now on instead of embedding them.

Now that I've dispensed my advice, let me ask you for yours — what would you do in my shoes? Stand up to the bullying? Or give them what they want and hope they go away?

27 thoughts on “Bloggers Beware”

  1. Oh my gosh and golly!! Bullies on the internet, legal ones at that! It is scary. As I understand it, this troll (under some bridge) is going after photos that people use on web sites. Makes me think other bullies may try this for other aspects. People post all kinds of things on facebook pages. All heck could break loose there.

    I’d fight. For sure. Thank goodness for ExtortionLetterInfo! Thanks for sharing your story. And for explaining why all these posts from 2011 kept being announced in my email. I did wonder what was happening.

    Sounds like you won’t get further harassment. Is there even proof the image you used was a “Getty” image? Word needs to get around that these guys are bluffing. The internet has made all kinds of great people connections and actions possible. It also makes all kinds of nastiness possible. Case in point.

  2. Johanna, you’re right. The internet gives people potential for connecting in good ways, and then also in negative ways.

    No, there is no proof that this is a Getty image. That’s just it… they did not provide proof of anything (even when I asked). They claim it, which may or may not be the case.

    It seems Pinterest and Facebook have so far been exempt from these trolls under the bridge (very apt image), at least from what I’ve read. It seems blog and website owners are the ones who are being targeted.

    We need a big billy goat gruff.

  3. Peggy Lester Pitcher

    Stand UP! Stand UP! Stand UP! Good for YOU! Good for us, too! Who knew? What sleuthing you have done! I’m also thinking that they will not pursue this. Where’s the proof, right? They didn’t show any and probably won’t. I think I want to post a link to this on my FB page for other blogging friends. What does your son think now?

  4. Thank you, Peggy, for your comments. Like you, Paul does not think they will pursue this. They sent me a link to the image of the picture on my blog, but that is all the “proof” that they have provided. None on whether they actually represent the copyright holder or who that is.

    Please do share this everywhere… Let’s get the word out so others are not blindsided.

    Thank you again for your thoughts.

  5. Pingback: Bloggers Beware | Former Amish News

  6. I’m so sorry this happened to you. A similar thing happened to another blogger I know, and it was innocent on her part too. Fair Use can be very hard to figure out. Anyway, I would do exactly what you last did, that is, remove the image and cut off communicating with them. If they want to hunt you down and subpoena you over a few hundred dollars (they won’t) then that’s their problem. It wouldn’t be in their best financial interest to pursue this, so I agree with Paul. On a side note, they have A LOT of nerve sending that bill and claiming to represent some anonymous copyright holder. It’s like some kid trying to blackmail you on the playground.

    1. Monica, thank you for your empathy. You’re right, copyrights have a lot of gray areas, as does fair use. Blackmailing is what it feels like, you’re right about that also.

      Please share this on your social media.

      Thank you for your support, Monica.

  7. WOW! Good for you that you had the courage to stand up. And thank you for sharing that. Hope that this will be shared on many social medias and that other affected bloggers may have the courage to stand up fight and not just get away with it.

  8. Sound to me like a hoax. Any time someone is demanding money in such a way…I don’t trust it. There are so many scams out there.

    1. Fran, you’re right. Now I’m being hounded by phone calls from someone who claims to be the IRS suing me, and I need to call such-and-such a number. The chief of police had already warned everyone on town through the phone warning system about that scam. Sometimes I wonder what the difference is between these two situations.

  9. What a disgusting, manipulative practice! I am glad that you did not capitulate. I am also glad that you posted about it here. The extortionletter.com website is very informative. The more people learn about this practice, the better!

    I think I can clear up the mystery surrounding the 605 Fifth Avenue South address: It belongs to Picscout. It appears that Picscout is authorized to contact “violators” on the behalf of the separate image-licensing companies, Getty Images and Alamy.

    1. Thank you, Stacy, for adding that information. There are several other aliases, too, I believe.

      Please share freely on your social media and encourage others to do so also… let’s get the word out!

      Thanks, Stacy.

  10. Sally Schwartz

    It can be really upsetting when threatening letters or phone calls like this are received.Your blog is read by a lot of people.This will be an alert for photographers not to sell their photos to these people and for others not to buy from them.I have seen sites where the photographer has his name across the photo so it is clear they don’t want it shared. I think you are right not communicate with them further. Your lawyer son wouldn’t have given you that advice if he didn’t think it was right. I had that IRS call too and started arguing with the person for a few moments before putting it together that it was a scam and hanging up. But I was still unnerved until I actually reached the
    real IRS and was reassured it was a scam.

  11. Sally, it is unnerving, isn’t it, to get such belligerent phone calls or letters. I can only imagine what it was like for you to receive that phone call from scammers claiming to be the IRS. That was smart that you called the IRS.

    I almost cringe when the phone rings these days… there are just too many people trying to get money and information any way they can.

    Thank you for your comments, Sally. It is always good to hear from you.

  12. Saloma, What an awful process you’ve had to endure but I admire how you stood up to them. Thank you for taking the time to share the valuable lessons you learned the hard way. It is a powerful reminder to all of us to be very careful about the use of photos on our sites. I hope it is settled once and for all for you.It certainly is a scary world where exploiters and scammers lurk in every corner ready to pounce.

    1. Kathy, I keep getting notices, but I also keep ignoring them. I am fairly certain that they will not actually sue me. Over one photo? Really?

      I’m glad if I can help others avoid this kind of debacle.

      Thanks for your comments.

  13. Pingback: Media & Press Coverage of ExtortionLetterInfo (ELI) » ExtortionLetterInfo: Fight Getty Images Settlement Demand Letters

  14. Hi Soloma,

    Thanks for sharing your story. It sounds just like mine. I was just sent a letter from LCS back in December demanding $825 for one photo that I, too, found on the Internet. I replied back demanding all kinds of proof, so Samantha Clemens sent bogus attachments that were suppose to prove ownership. Anyone could have written them and there were no dates, etc. Neither document looked professional.

    So, I called Gallery Stock who LCS is “representing”. I spoke to a girl in the sales department. I said I was writing a paper on copyright infringement. She said they only work with PicScout. She said they don’t work with any other affiliated companies (i.e. License Compliance Services, Gettys, etc.). I asked if they were able to collect on their behalf and she said no. They bring it to their legal departments attention first. She didn’t know all aspects of it, but felt she gave me the correct information.

    Then I reviewed PicScout’s website and I noticed it had the same phone number as all of the other collectors out there. So, I called PicScout’s number and the lady answered License Compliance. I told her I was writing a paper for school and I was looking for information on the topic of copyright infringement. I said, I thought I was calling PicScout and asked if PicScout was affiliated with them. She said that was confidential information and she was not at liberty to say. Then I said they had the same number. She repeated the number back to me and I said yes, that’s on PicScout’s website. She then said License Compliance is taking over PicScout. I asked if they were going to change their website and she said that was again confidential. I said ok, thank you for your time.

    Really? Why is that confidential? The whole thing was so shady. To cover my bases, I then decided to go to the artist’s website and try contacting him about the photo I was interested in using. I didn’t say anything about the current situation of copyright infringement, but that I was interested in using the photo. I asked if he would give me permission, since I am on a tight budget. I told him I would keep his name on the photo and even provide a link to his website. I am not sure if he or anyone else will respond, but I thought it was worth a shot and to try covering all of my bases.

    After looking up extensive information on LCS, Getty, PicScout, etc., I decided that I would not respond again. Most people seem to respond once and then ignore the rest of the letters. It seems they will stop after a while. I am hoping that will be the case for me too or that I will get permission from photographer to use the photo so they will leave me alone. We will see what happens next.

    1. Hello Dana,

      I wish you the best with your situation. It sounds like you were very strategic and smart about the way you sought information. When enough people resist in this way, they will be uncovered. Abuses can only happen in secret. After I stopped engaging with them, they sent me three more letters, and then they stopped. This is out-and-out extrortion, if not fraud. They probably make millions by scaring people. But they have to live with this on their consciences. I really do believe that people get what they give. Not always in our desired time frame… but eventually.

  15. Oh my! Thank you so much for your blog. We received a letter from LCS about photos we had used. When I went to their website, a window popped up to live chat with them to resolve the issue. Believe it or not, the online rep had the name Saloma Furlong! I was trying to talk to her about our invoice and asked her about reducing it (this was before I’d researched anything to find articles such as this one that you had written). She ended the chat before I could finish the conversation with her. I wish I had taken a print screen. So strange.

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