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Disclaimer: I’m not a legal expert. If you know something about copyright infringement and you’d like to share your thoughts, or if you have advice to give thanks to personal experience, please let me (and others) know in the comments below!
Last week, my project nearly came crashing to the ground. I’ve given over a significant portion of my 30 years to a website called DrunkenWerewolf. I’ve poured my heart, soul, and a hefty amount of my earnings into this website, which continues to provide an important platform for me and many others. It’s as dear to me as my right foot.
To make matters worse, the reason it nearly came crashing down wasn’t out of my own stupidity. It was because of an image licensing issue, and one that many wouldn’t consider my fault.
Stay on the right side of the law. It’s a dry read, but the Gov.uk website has everything you need to know about copyright and image licensing in the UK.
Rewind several months and I’m writing a feature about the flexibility of music trends over time. It’s not a groundbreaking piece but it’s something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I have to get it out. Stuck for an image to use, I turn to my favourite resource for free license images: Pexels.com. I settle on a nondescript photograph that depicts old music score sheets. As with all Pexels images, there’s no credit request. In fact the website specifically states “It’s hard to understand complex licenses that is why [sic] all photos on Pexels are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. This means the pictures are completely free to be used for any legal purpose.“
I publish the piece without giving it a second thought.
Back to the present day and I’m faced with a confrontational though formulated email from an image licensing agency called Pixsy. It’s the first time I’ve heard from them or the photographer in question, and the language is aggressive and stressful. It attacks my project as though it’s a profit earning glossy magazine that’s deliberately flouting the rules. There’s a strong insinuation through the email and their official website that I don’t give a hoot about ‘creatives’, even though many would say I am one: the company’s slogan is even, “We stick our neck out for creatives.”
The email says I owe the photographer £250 and if I don’t pay within 21 days, I will be taken to court for copyright infringement. It also looks suspect, and it gives no evidence to support Pixsy’s claim that they represent the photographer. You could forgive a person for assuming it’s a scam and ignoring the email, only to find themselves in court several months later.
Are you concerned about image licensing? Always reference your source in the Image Title Attribute, even if you think it’s free license. This will at worst act as a good reminder if you’re ever quizzed about an image.
I’m mortified. I’m certain that I found the image on a free license website, and I’m usually extremely cautious to respect other creatives and give credit where credit is due. Not only that but when I have money to spend, I tend to spend it on other people. I have never drawn a wage from DrunkenWerewolf, which is non-profit to its core. I respond to Pixsy crying innocence, explaining that I thought it was a free license image and I don’t have the kind of money they’re demanding available to me or the project. I round off with a promise to take the image down, which I swiftly do.
Within 24 hours I receive another email bluntly telling me that my excuse is not good enough. A direct quote: “Our photographer has confirmed that this photograph was never made available on Pexels.com. While we understand that tracking down a photo’s source can be difficult, it is the responsibility of the content user to clear all rights prior to publication and abide by any license terms stated.“
I have many issues with this response. I did get the image from Pexels.com, but clearly, Pixsy is going to side with their client on this one. I’m more concerned about their claim that website owners need to clear all rights prior with the photographer regardless of what others say about the image licensing. Fellow bloggers will know this is an extremely loaded command. I think to myself, how many times have I used an image from a free license website? How many times have I been sent an image by an artist or PR? Whether these seemingly legit sources distribute a licensed image because of a lack of education, a mistake or a bare bone lie… It wouldn’t matter. If the photographer claims the image is licensed, as the website owner and “content creator,” I’d be legally responsible for the copyright infringement.
Unfortunately, I was quickly assured that this is totally true. The law is bias, and website owners have little protection.
Now anger begins to set in. Despite my anxiousness about the bill I’ve been presented with, my blood begins to boil at how unreasonable the situation is. Worse still, I don’t believe I’m at fault, and my polite insistence that I have a reasonable excuse is falling on deaf ears.
If and when you’re accused of copyright, immediately take screen caps of your source, especially if you think it’s legitimate. This will go a long way to support you in an argument, as most reasonable photographers will likely want to attack the source of the issue.
I begin to research for advice, hoping to find someone in a similar situation to me. Instead, I find a lot of articles in support of Pixsy because of the income they’re generating for photographers. These photographers may not be very special. The photography may not be worth the going rate. The money may come from a soon-to-be-bankrupted source or from the personal pocket of hobbyists. It doesn’t matter, it’s a witch hunt.
Few resources try to educate readers about copyright and image licensing. This is made poignant by the fact that the underlying problem seems to be a lack of knowledge about infringement and what constitutes it. I’d consider myself to be a fairly proactive website owner, and until now, I didn’t know what I needed to know. I dread to think of all the bloggers who are as clueless as I once was and how open they are to being sued.
Looking for a great image licensing knowledge source? Read everything on Extortion Letter Info. It has what you need to know.
While I’m researching on the internet and getting more and more annoyed, my conversation with Pixsy is ongoing. Following collective advice from peers and friends, I repeatedly assert that I didn’t earn any money from the use of the image. I continue to state that I sourced it from a free license website in good faith and that DrunkenWerewolf is non-profit. Gradually Pixsy begins to lower their price, but not by nearly enough… Until I pull out the big guns.
A few of my friends suggest this could be entrapment. There is nothing stopping a photographer from uploading an image to a free license website, taking it down a few days later, and claiming copyright infringement on the website owners who chose to use the image during that upload time. The paranoid side of my brain loves this idea like a particularly backwards gospel. Finally, I pitch it to Pixsy.
They immediately drop the case. Just like that.
I’m not saying this is what happened. I am saying it rattled Pixsy’s tree and I couldn’t find any evidence of the photographer selling the image anywhere on the internet. I could find evidence of the image being hosted on less reputable free license websites around the net (it was gone from Pexels.com). Pixsy didn’t seem too bothered by it. All in all, that’s enough to make me concerned about the legitimacy of the case.
Not only does the law fail to support website owners, but it actively supports cases of fraud against them. When that happens, we’re open to criticism, harassment and bankruptcy at the hands of image licensing agencies and the photographers who hire them. I hate to resort to childish retorts, but that really doesn’t seem fair.