copyright law

Getty Images Extortion Letter

In July of 2011, I received a letter from Getty Images.

The letter claimed I was in violation of copyright. But the letter was not a typical Cease and Desist. Rather, it demanded the removal of the image from my site, plus a settlement payment of $1,065 to Getty Images.

My first reaction was shock.

  • How had I violated copyright?
  • And why would Getty demand so much money for such a pedestrian image?
  • Why not send a simple Cease and Desist letter like a normal business would?

The Getty “extortion” letter contained a copy of the image in question, as well as the URL where they had found it.

I immediately looked into the issue.

Here’s What Happened…

Basically, I had hired a person to help build a website. He had written a blog post about constipation.

Then, to illustrate the concept, he used a picture he found on another website with a link back to the original source. The picture showed a boy sitting on a toilet, from the bathroom floor up to the boy’s knees.

As a result, Getty Images pulled my information from the “Who Is” database and mailed me their “extortion” letter.

At first, I thought I could just ignore Getty. I thought they might drop the issue if I waited them out.

Such was not the case. Getty is persistent in these matters.

I got the first letter in July 2011. I then got a second letter in September 2011. I received a third letter in June 2012.

The third letter threatened legal action. At that point, I decided to seek out some help.

I had joined Legal Shield in December 2011 because of this issue with Getty. So my first course of action was to contact my designated law firm and have them send a letter to Getty.

They asked me to send details of my situation, which I did.

Unfortunately, they were not ready to “play hardball” with Getty. In fact, they seemed somewhat sympathetic to Getty. They suggested a groveling mea culpa. So they merely reproduced what I’d written on their firm’s letterhead (after switching it from first-person to third-person voice).

I was not impressed.

Getty Counters My Offer to Settle

The letter my law firm sent to Getty included my offer to settle for $157. Why did I use this figure?

Because I looked up the exact image on Getty’s website and found that $157 was the cost to license that image for two years in a web editorial format. (Today, October 2, 2012, that same license can be purchased for $110.)

Never mind that the image had only been on my site for a period of eight months. I figured I’d be generous in my offer to settle just to bring the issue to a close.

But Getty would not accept my offer.

I found this puzzling because of the following statement that was included in their “extortion” letter:

Please note that ceasing use of the image(s) does not absolve your company of its responsibility to pay for the image(s) already used without a license. Getty Images’ Copyright Compliance Team is willing to discuss the circumstances surrounding this matter; however, absent appropriate licenses, Getty Images and its artists expect to be fairly compensated for the use of the image(s) in question.

Apparently, Getty Images interprets the phrase “fairly compensated” differently than I do.

If I use an image for eight months, and then offer to pay for a 2-year license, I think that is more than fair compensation. Especially when you consider these two facts:

Fact #1: I can purchase a royalty-free license for a similar image for $8 on iStockphoto, which is also owned by Getty Images.

Fact #2: In my case, I did not knowingly or intentionally violate copyright. It is a case of what’s called “innocent infringement.” Part of 17 USC 504(c)(2) says:

In a case where the infringer sustains the burden of proving, and the court finds, that such infringer was not aware and had no reason to believe that his or her acts constituted an infringement of copyright, the court in its discretion may reduce the award of statutory damages to a sum of not less than $200.

As I pointed out in the letter that was sent to Getty, I am a customer of iStockphoto. I have licensed images from them, and I would never knowingly violate a copyright.

And in this case — even though I personally did not reproduce the image in question or profit from the image — I offered to settle for an amount that I felt was more than fair based on the price of the specific image that was used, as well as similar images that are available to be licensed right now.

Getty countered, saying they would not accept my offer, but that they would accept a payment of $580 as “full and final settlement” — but only if I sent payment postmarked by July 23, 2012.

I did not send payment.

How the Getty Extortion Machine Works

Getty’s business model is only loosely based on licensing images. It would be more accurate to say their business is based on owning as many images as possible and then trying to collect outrageous “damages” from people who accidentally violate copyright.

Right now, Getty has software that scans the Internet 24/7 looking for images that have been reproduced without a proper license. When the software identifies a potential copyright violator, their standard extortion letter is generated and mailed immediately.

And that’s only the start of their “legal” extortion machine.

They have armies of entry-level employees who handle the back-and-forth correspondence that inevitably happens when an online business owner gets caught in the machine.

Eventually, you may cave and send the settlement amount that Getty has requested.

Or you may hold out and your case will be elevated from a lowly staffer to an attorney who will threaten you with a lawsuit.

Getty’s strategy is fairly clear: Use copyright law to scare people into paying stupid amounts of money for images that, under normal circumstances, cost very little to license.

You see, images on the Internet are ubiquitous. Pair that with relatively low demand and it creates a situation where it’s difficult to charge premium prices.

Getty’s answer?

Use copyright law in a way it was never intended to be used — as a way to force ordinary folks to cough up thousands of dollars for some pixels on a screen.

What Should You Do If You’ve Gotten a Letter from a Copyright Troll?

After doing some research, I found the ELI network. “ELI” is short for Extortion Letter Info.

The site is run by Matthew Chan and Oscar Michelen, both of whom are “dedicated to reporting information and providing commentary on Getty Images (and other stock photo) Settlement Demand Letters.”

When I found the site, I began to read some of the articles and forum posts. I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t alone — and shocked to discover how common these settlement demand letters have become.

After receiving Getty’s response to my offer to settle, I paid $50 to speak with Matthew Chan. It was money well spent. He was able to answer my questions and give me a clear picture of what to expect.

If you’ve gotten an “extortion letter” from Getty or any other copyright troll:

This will provide you with the information you need to make a smart decision.

And it may provide you with the confidence and support you need to stand up to Getty and other copyright trolls.

EDIT: I published a lengthy follow-up to this post here: Attack of the Trollogs! And More Thoughts about Getty Extortion Letters

-Ryan M. Healy

P.S. Getty Images owns iStockphoto. Therefore, I will no longer support iStockphoto. If you feel the way I do, support Fotolia instead.

P.P.S. Have you received an extortion letter? Share your experience in the comments below.

Ryan M. Healy

Ryan Healy is a financial copywriter and the author of Speed Writing for Nonfiction Writers. Since 2002, he has worked with scores of clients, including Agora Financial, Lombardi Publishing, and Contrarian Profits. He writes a popular blog about copywriting, advertising, and business growth, has been featured in publications like Feed Front magazine, and has been published on sites like WordStream.com, SmallBizClub.com, and MarketingForSuccess.com.

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