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I was accused of copyright infringement today...
As an author, you know the importance of copyright protection.
We have been dealing with book piracy and content theft for eons. And while the growth of technology has improved our lives in a lot of ways (here's looking at you, typewriter!) it has also made it even easier for people to steal and profit off our work. Not only that, but in many ways, technology has made it harder for us to protect our work.
And, hello, how many authors have lost their accounts on Amazon because their bots found an instance of someone's book being stolen and sold on a pirate site? I mean, does it get worse than punishing the victim?
It's because of how easy it is to steal from us that we've started doing things like setting up Google Alerts to help us spot potential pirated books. Or, for a little more robust solution, something like Harvel to help monitor the internet for infringements.
You get my point here: copyright infringement is a huge deal. It is not a victimless crime. We need a lot more help and a lot more resources to help us combat it.
So imagine my surprise when earlier today I went into my email only to find a notice of possible infringement made against me from a company called COPYTRACK.
I thought it was a joke at first, to be honest. I thought the email must be some scam and that if I clicked on one of the links it was going to get my IP address or my site information or something like that... I thought best case scenario it was a prank and worst-case scenario it was a hack attempt. Then I did some searching and I found that they are actually a "legitimate" company.
I say "legitimate" because they are about a hair above scam. They are shady and toeing the line to scam, but carefully choose their victims and stay just north of scam.
But I digress.
Who is COPYTRACK
According to their email:
Since 2015, Copytrack has been helping creatives and brands protect their copyrighted images. As one of the leading digital licensing and copyright agents in the world, we have helped manage, license, and enforce over 200.000 cases of image theft. Though most cases settle peacefully, we reserve the right to proceed legally where necessary through our global network of partner law firms in order to protect the intellectual property of our customers.COPYTRACK email
Of course, I don't trust them right off the bat. So I hit Google to ask if COPYTRACK was a scam:
Now, yes, there were a lot of articles and opinion pieces out there claiming that COPYTRACK was a scam, but there were also sites like Heitner Legal, a law firm, warning to take the email seriously:
Copytrack is a bit different than other image rights associations. Note, it is not a law firm and will not sue you for failing to reply; however, it does have the capacity and has in the past escalated these issues to law firms. As such, it is best to not completely ignore Copytrack. Anyhow, the main difference is that it does not only wish to be compensated for past, unauthorized use of an image or images. Instead, it commonly seeks to offer a continuing license for future use, which is not required in case you decide you would rather scrap the image from your website and server.Darren Heitner, Esq., Heitner Legal
So, here is what I have been able to put together based on all these articles.
- Copytrack is a reverse image search engine that monitors the global online use of images and takes care of subsequent licensing and rights.
- It functions as an image rights association, but they are not a law firm.
- Copytrack's crawling technology and image AI enables the global monitoring of images, brands, and products for agencies, brands, publishers & influencers.
- Copytrack is not a law firm and will not sue you for failing to reply to their copyright demand letter, but they may escalate to legal action.
What Does the Email from COPYTRACK say
The email listed a a few details, such as a link to the exact article on my site where their AI found the image in question, a small copy of the image itself, and a couple of other details such as when the blog post was published.
And then it said what they wanted me to do in order to resolve their claim:
Yep, basically they are telling me to log into their site and prove that I have permission to use the image in question, or pay them a bunch of money for the time I had already been using it with the option to also pay more money should I want to continue using it for another year.
And they're giving me one month.
The Unfortunate Reality of Blogging: Accusations of Copyright Infringement
As a blogger, you're undoubtedly aware of the importance of high-quality visuals to accompany your written content. Pictures draw readers in and add to the overall aesthetic appeal of your blog. However, what many bloggers might not realize is that using images without proper permission can lead to accusations of copyright infringement.
In simple terms, copyright infringement occurs when someone uses another person's work without permission or proper attribution. This includes photos, illustrations, videos, music or any other creative material that is owned by someone else.
A lot of bloggers think that if something is available on the Internet to look at, then it must mean that they have permission to download or even use that image. Of course, that's wrong.
But it goes even deeper than that, too. It's not enough to pay for an image, you have to understand the license that comes with any image you obtain from anywhere: free or paid. You might be purchasing an image that is for personal use only, in which case using it for commercial purposes is a big no-no that could get you into trouble even though you paid to use the image.
Go ahead and look up the case of the $7500 green pepper. I don't think Chrystie (the blogger who was accused of copyright infringement) is still blogging, as her domain now leads to a GoDaddy sales page, but it's still a cautionary tale that I have been telling my clients for years.
Why Bloggers are Commonly Accused
Bloggers are often accused of copyright infringement because they frequently use images from other sources rather than creating their own content. While it's understandable why bloggers might want to do this (time constraints being one), it's important to remember that using someone else's photos without their permission is illegal. Furthermore, while there are many websites out there offering free stock photos or Creative Commons licensed images (more on this later), these options may not always fit with the blogger's content requirements - leading them back down the path towards unpermitted image usage.
So what can bloggers do? The best course of action is to create your own visual content, whether that's taking your own photographs or designing your images.
Not only does this avoid any potential copyright issues, but it also makes your blog more unique and visually appealing. If creating original content isn't an option, then bloggers should always make sure the images they use are properly licensed for their specific use case and give proper attribution where required.
What to do if You're Accused of Copyright Infringement
Determine if the accusation is valid or not
When you receive an accusation of copyright infringement, step back and assess the situation before making any decisions. The first thing you should do is determine if the accusation is valid or not. Is it coming from a reputable company? Is it a scam? What is the potential that you actually used someone else's copyrighted material without permission?
The best way to do this is to carefully review your blog post and the photo in question. If you did use someone else's photo without permission, then the accusation is likely valid.
However, there are situations where it may not be so clear-cut. For example, if you found the photo on a website that claimed to offer free stock photos but didn't properly attribute its source.
This is probably a good time to remind you that I am a ghostwriter, not a lawyer. So none of this post should be used as actual legal advice. If you're unsure whether the accusation is valid or not, consider seeking legal advice from an intellectual property attorney. They can help you evaluate your situation and determine what actions to take.
Check if you have permission to use the photo
Once you've determined that the accusation of copyright infringement is potentially valid, your next step should be to check whether or not you have permission to use the photo in question. If you obtained permission from the owner of the copyright (usually by purchasing a license), then there should be no issue. If you downloaded the photo from a stock photo site, go back to that stock photo site and check the license on the photo itself and make sure that you are using it in an approved manner.
However, if you did not obtain explicit permission but believed that your use of it would constitute fair use or otherwise fall under an exception to copyright infringement laws (such as for news reporting or criticism), then consider consulting an attorney with experience in intellectual property law.
Now, I have always used a variety of sites for my photos on this blog, as well as blogs that I contribute to or run for clients.
My favorite free stock photo sites are:
And more recently, I have been staying with DepositPhotos and Creative Fabrica almost exclusively, although I have also tried Adobe Stock Photos, Yay Images, and Dreamstime.
There are two issues with this, right? First, I couldn't remember right off the bat which of these sites I had actually downloaded the image in question from.
I knew I had permission because I have never downloaded a photo illegally to use on my blog, but how was I going to prove it if I couldn't even remember which of these sites I downloaded it from?
The only thing I remembered for sure what that particular blog post was one of the ones I had updated with new images during a wave of updates in 2020-2021, when I was trying to include more people of color in the stock photos on my site. A black freelance writer had mentioned that freelance writing was very "white" and they didn't feel welcome because they never saw themselves on writing sites, so I wanted to incorporate a more diverse range of stock photos to help everyone feel more represented.
And that led me to looking at Unsplash first because I remembered a conversation with some other content creators who were agreeing with me that Unsplash had the best range of diverse stock photos available of all the free stock imagery sites (even though you still have to really dig to find them). So that's where I started my search.
But it didn't take me long (45 minutes or so) to realize that this was not going to be the way to find proof. I could be there for hours and hours, but because of the type of photo it was and how long it had taken for me to find it in the first place, I could be using the wrong keywords and never find it.
Or I could be on the wrong site.
I didn't have weeks to dedicate to this just to find a license.
Then I got smart and I went back to my blog post, downloaded the image in question, and went to Google Image search and decided to do a reverse search of my own and Google found the photo on two sites: Creative Fabrica and Adobe Stock Photos—both of which I use.
So I logged into my account at Creative Fabrica, grabbed the information for the image license there, and went to fill out the form over at COPYTRACK to send them my proof.
Then I immediately removed the image from my blog post, searched for that photographer on every site I use for images, and added that photographer to my blacklist (my own personal list of photographers I will never support or purchase from; it's only got one name on it so far). I'll explain why in a bit.
Needless to say, yes! There it was in my download history. And according to the license, that image came with commercial use license... so I was able to find the proof I needed that I had permission to use the image.
Can You Negotiate?
If I wasn't able to find the proof I needed, or if I hadn't thought to just do my own reverse image search that way, then I likely would have contacted my own lawyer to try to figure out what to do next.
I mean, come on: I'm a single mother of two children, both with special needs; I just beat cancer... things around here are already stressful. I don't have 900 Euros to send over to someone over something like this.
If you do not have permission to use the photo, or if you can't find the proof because you use too many sites, then it's time to consider negotiating with the copyright owner. I think kindness and understanding can go a long way, and in some cases, they may be willing to allow you to continue using their photo provided you pay a licensing fee or agree to certain conditions (such as providing attribution).
Not COPYTRACK. The actual copyright holder. COPYTRACK is not a law firm, they are a rights agency. That means the copyright owner may be using them to help them find instances of infringement and give them permission to send notices of infringement, but you can still absolutely contact them yourself to resolve anything you like if you don't want to go through COPYTRACK to resolve the issue.
Explain your situation and express a willingness to find a mutually beneficial solution. Remember, copyright owners have legal rights over their intellectual property, so it's important to approach negotiations in good faith. And as long as you are genuine and didn't set out to steal or harm them, I think most people would be forgiving and help you out. And besides, if you go to them directly, they may even lower that fee a bit since they would no longer have to split it with COPYTRACK. So it's definitely worth contacting the copyright holder and trying to resolve everything amicably directly.
Prevent Future Accusations
Educate yourself on copyright laws and fair use
If you ended up being accused of copyright infringement because you actually infringed (either out of ignorance or just because you were thinking you wouldn't be caught because you're not big enough of a deal), then it's time to learn more about copyright law so it doesn't happen again.
Copyright infringement is a serious matter, and not knowing the laws won't protect you from getting accused of infringing someone else's intellectual property. So, it's crucial to educate yourself on copyright laws and fair use.
Copyright law protects original works of authorship that are fixed in any tangible medium of expression, including text, images, videos, and music. Fair use is an exception to the exclusive rights granted to the copyright owner under the law.
It allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission from the owner for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research. Therefore, before using any copyrighted material on your blog post or website, it’s essential that you understand what constitutes fair use so that you can avoid violating someone else’s intellectual property rights.
Use royalty-free or Creative Commons licensed photos
Royalty-free images are those that are available, usually for purchase, by anyone for a one-time fee without the need for additional payments or royalties. They can be used multiple times after purchase in various projects without any legal repercussions.
Creative Commons licensed photos are free to download and can be used by anyone without charge as long as proper attribution is given.
These photos come with different requirements depending on their license type; some require credit while others don’t. Using royalty-free or Creative Commons licensed photos ensures that you’re not infringing someone else’s intellectual property rights since these images have been made available legally.
Either way, make sure you are getting your photos only from reputable sources. Right now, my two favorites are DepositPhotos and Creative Fabrica.
And, in fact, after this, I will not download another photo from any other source and I am going to be spending the next several weeks replacing every photo on this site from every other source.
Track Where Your Photos Are Coming From
When I started writing up this blog post, one of the first things I did was to go to DepositPhotos to download the image that I would be using for the Featured Image, and then I went to my Google Drive and I created a spreadsheet where I could start tracking my images.
Should this ever happen again, I want to know exactly when and from where I downloaded any image as well as a link to the license info for that image so I don't have to go through the stress of trying to find proof that I did what I was supposed to do.
If you'd like a copy of this tracker, you can grab it from here, no strings attached (I won't even ask you for an email address). Just delete the first row, which is the info from this blog post (I'll left it in there so you can use it as a template):
Free stock image sites might not be enough
Nothing against Unsplash, Pixabay, or Pexels... they are all great sites and I love them. They were especially awesome when I first started this blog back in 2013 (OMG has it really been 10 years??). Images are hard. They are expensive to buy and hard to take if you're not a photographer. I will always be grateful for these sites for being around and helping me out with images.
But I will also never use them again and never recommend them again.
Because here is the thought that has been running through my head throughout this entire thing: I have been using Creative Fabrica for years. I got in at a really great deal and have been using them at a discounted rate ever since. But I don't specifically remember download the image in question from Creative Fabrica. It's there in my download history, but I don't remember doing it.
Now, there are a few reasons for this, right? I have ADHD, and my memory sucks. I'm getting older, I have a lot going on, I'm busy and hectic and can't always remember where I get certain things from.
I can't even remember the name of the grocery store I shop at most of the time until I see it.
Kind of like when you drive home and once you get there, you don't remember the actual drive because you were on auto-pilot.
But I also keep having this gnawing feeling that if it had been on one of the free sites, like Unsplash, that I would not be in a good place right now.
Photographers are allowed to change their licensing and channels for distribution at any time. And in fact, I remember there being a big hoopla a few years ago because of photographers changing their licensing over at Dreamstime and leaving a bunch of people in a bind because all of a sudden they weren't sure what that meant for the images already downloaded.
For sites like DepositPhotos and Creative Fabrica, they keep a download history for things that I've downloaded. But those free sites don't. Heck, you don't even have to log into Unsplash to download an image, much less keep a history of your downloads.
And the very last thing I need is to download an image from Unsplash only to have the photographer remove it a couple years later and then come after me asking for proof that I downloaded it from Unsplash.
No thank you.
This is why I now have a list of photographers, because while I have no proof that this particular photographer has ever done that, I did find his name on several of those sites, and therefore can't rule it out that he'd done it or could do it. And I don't want to take the chance. (I also didn't like that the way I found out about the possibility of a copyright infringement was through a threat from COPYTRACK demanding over $1,000 to "resolve" the issue rather than any sort of conversation or even a take-down notice at all; nope, just jumped straight to extortion).
The Importance of Respecting Copyright Laws
Now that you know what to do if you've been accused of copyright infringement, I want to emphasize the significance of respecting copyright laws.
Copyright laws protect creators and their work, and by using someone else's copyrighted material without permission, you could be infringing on their rights and potentially harming their livelihood. It's essential to always assume that a photo or any other creative work is copyrighted unless it explicitly states otherwise.
Take the time to read up on copyright laws so that you can protect yourself and others from infringement. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse, so it is your responsibility to ensure that you are not infringing on anyone else's rights.
Take Accusations Seriously
Receiving a notice of copyright infringement can be stressful and anxiety-inducing, but it's important to take accusations seriously. Even if you think the accusation is baseless or unfounded, it's crucial to respond promptly and professionally.
Remember that if someone owns the copyright for a photo or another creative work, they have the legal right to control how it is used. Always assume good faith on behalf of the accuser and try to resolve any disputes amicably rather than becoming defensive.
Education and Prevention
The best way to avoid accusations of copyright infringement is through education and prevention. Take time to learn about copyright laws in your country or region as well as what constitutes fair use. When sourcing photos for your blog post or other projects, look for royalty-free images or Creative Commons licensed photos rather than assuming all images are free for use.
Give proper attribution when necessary so that others can easily find the original source. By incorporating these preventative measures into your blogging practices, you can greatly reduce your risk of being accused of copyright infringement in the future.
So don't let the fear of copyright infringement hold you back. Instead, use this knowledge as a tool to further improve your skills as a blogger and create even better content going forward.