UPDATE: I have related articles you might be interested in: Did your ISP forward you a DMCA copyright infringement notice? and Analysis and raw contents of a real copyright infringement notice.
Recently, a client of mine who shall remain anonymous received a nasty letter from Getty Images, claiming copyright infringement and demanding an immediate “settlement amount” for images they claimed my client was using on their website without a license. The client had the website designed by an Indian firm many years ago and the content of the site was (obviously) represented to him as being completely OK.
My client, if in fact engaged in copyright infringement at all, was not willingly and intentionally doing so. The images were kind of stupid in my not-so-humble opinion anyway, and being the inheritor of the site’s maintenance tasks (or lack thereof, since nothing’s been changed beyond link targets), I removed the potentially infringing images, despite the fact that the threatening letter forwarded to me for review contains no actual proof of copyright.
The content of this letter is malicious, to say the least, and attempts to deceive the recipient into ignoring their legal rights. Furthermore, the letter asks for an outrageous “settlement” to the tune of $1,000 PER IMAGE…for images that aren’t even 300 dots across! I can’t imagine why anyone would pay fifty cents a pixel for ANY image. (Unless it’s porn, because you’d be shocked at just how many people look at the stuff and wreck their computer in the process by executing something claiming to be, say, a “Scarlett Johansson private porn movie” when it’s really a virus. Sheesh.)
I started searching for info on these people after this event occurred, and that’s when the really interesting tidbits started popping up…
A Google search for “getty images letter” yields ~856,000 results. They’ve been damned busy. Most of it is forum postings, but the real gem was this website that says it all, and I’ll leave you with a delicious excerpt from it:
Why is This Being Called “Legalized Extortion” and an “Extortion Letter Scheme”?
This is a descriptive term for Getty Images’ deliberate, malicious, bullying, and presumptuous letter campaign that engages in what is tantamount to legalized extortion. The letter in its entirety is both well-worded and well-constructed. It has been clearly been well thought out. Because of the deliberate construction and planning that goes into this letter campaign, it qualifes as a Scheme.
The Letter automatically presumes guilt of the recipient. The letter recipient is expected to provide proof of their innocence. In effect, the letter recipient is presumed guilty unless they prove their innocence.
Although the letter does provide for the possibility that the letter recipient was unaware and unintended of the alleged infringement, the Letter takes a heavy-handed and unforgiving approach of stating that they are responsible for all alleged “damages and liability”. The Letter automatically presumes Getty Images has been “damaged” whether or not that is actually true or proven.
Because this scheme relies heavily on the letter recipients ignorance of due legal process and people’s inherent fear of legal conflict as a result of that ignorance, it is considered by many as legal extortion.
That’s all, folks. On that site, you can find a lawyer who will represent you for $150 an hour against Getty Images, should you receive a nasty letter from them and feel the need to respond. Note that Getty Images has not filed one single lawsuit against ANY recipients of their extortion letter. This is no different than the RIAA extortion scheme attempting to sue “file sharers” even though no proof of actual sharing (and thus no damages) exist.
Do not conduct business with Getty Images or any of its surrogates, such as iStockPhoto.com, because this kind of abuse should not be rewarded. If you have received a “settlement letter” from these scumbags, you can probably ignore it. I would recommend (A) removing the alleged infringing images anyway, (B) removing all copies of your site from archive.org’s Wayback Machine, and (C) waiting for Google’s cache of your website to refresh or vanish, before you initiate contact with Getty Images again, if you do so at all. You can also add entries to your robots.txt file to disallow the Internet Archive’s bot from caching up and archiving your site, and you can add META tags to each page that disallow ALL caching by robots; this will effectively reduce the chance that some third party can verify that the images ever existed, and give you plausible deniability: “I’m sorry, but no such image exists or has ever existed on this website. You did an excellent job of mocking up a screenshot, though; we appreciate your need to locate customers, but you are in error and we do not wish to license images from you if you choose to approach us this way.”
Normally I’m against copyright infringement, but the presumption of intentional malicious infringement and including a settlement bill is insanely unethical and does indeed amount to “legalized extortion.” If a third party misrepresented the licensing status of the delivered product to the site’s owner, how is that the site owner’s fault in any way? Such a situation would be similar to claiming that a publisher is engaged in copyright infringement for publishing a book: they’re making money off of it and distributing the material, so isn’t it their fault? NO. The CONTENT GENERATOR is at fault for misrepresenting the facts to the next link in the chain, and the content generator should be held responsible for their failure to comply with copyright laws.
Beyond that, though, this is a decency issue when it all boils down. It’s always possible that the infringing party is not doing so intentionally and does not know that the image is licensed; indeed, on the Internet, much content is reproduced without copyright statements attached, and it’s easy to err. A POLITE cease and desist request would have been more than sufficient to stem the infringement for good and cause the business owner to “wise up.” Instead, these jerks chose to bully up my client, and that’s flat-out stupid, because someone like myself sees this stuff as a third party and blogs about it, generating NEGATIVE PUBLICITY. I wish I could give them MORE bad publicity for trying to screw my client out of egregious sums of money that just so happen to be less than the cost of a lawsuit, but far more than the license value of the images. They do not deserve to be in business if this is their idea of B2B relations. Interestingly enough, they only seem to go for small business owners, not big ones that can fight back! I can’t explain how despicable Getty Images is for behaving like this, and I strongly urge you to never give them a cent again.
On a side note, this is why you should choose a reputable United States-based firm to design websites instead of outsourcing that work to India or other countries that are known for their rampant copyright violations. My client almost got bitten by something he did before meeting me–make sure you don’t fall into the same trap. Get either licenses for the images or a statement from the designer that all material on the site they’ve designed is properly licensed for your site or is an original work that they have the rights to license to you directly. Prevention is important, and copyright infringement IS generally a bad thing, so take the proper steps and avoid this issue entirely.
Apparently, Corbis Images is doing the same exact thing. Avoid them as well. In fact, search for ANY stock photo company you do business with followed by the word “letter” and see if they’re actively threatening people before you pay them one red cent. Do your part to discourage bad business practices and we may very well see this kind of crap end one day.
An excellent resource to read letters like these is the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse.
I’d also like to point out that this page also does a great job of talking about the misbehavior of Getty Images and what to do about them.