What To Do When Your Image Is Stolen Online


From A Photo Editor, June 1, 2011

Having your images stolen online is not an “if,” but a “when” will it happen type of situation that you should be prepared to take action on. If you plan to run a photography business then you should plan to hire a lawyer now and again. If you cannot hire one then you should marry one, trade photos with one or be best friends with one.

(This author gets) a weekly email from photographers who have their images stolen and used on a site that appears to generate revenue. Several months ago I ran into this primer called Photography, Copyright, and the Law written by Carolyn E. Wright the  photo attorney and published on Ken Kaminesky’s blog. This excerpt from the post answers the question of what to do when you are infringed upon:

Q: What happens when a copyrighted photo is used without permission?

You have several options when you find that your photo has been infringed.

Option #1 – Do Nothing

You always have the option of doing nothing. If the infringer is in a foreign country where infringements are rampant and difficult to enforce or is a small website with little traffic, you may decide that it’s not worth your time and effort to fight the infringement.

Option # 2 – Request a Photo Credit

…if the website would provide a marketing outlet for you, you may only want the infringer to give you proper credit. If so, write the infringer a letter officially giving her the right to use the image. Be sure to designate the parameters of that use, such as who, what, why, when and where – see my blog entry here for more information. Include the condition that the infringer post a photo credit with a copyright notice on or adjacent to the use. You may also require the infringer to add a link to your website. You may get subsequent work from the infringer or others.

Option #3 – Prepare a DMCA Take-Down Notice

Purusant to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) enacted in 1998, the Internet Service Provider (“ISP”) that hosts a website is not liable for transmitting information that infringes a copyright only if the ISP removes the infringing materials from a user’s website after receiving proper notice of the violation. The notice must: be in writing, be signed by the copyright owner or the owner’s agent, identify the copyrighted work claimed to be infringed (or list of infringements from the same site) and identify the material that is infringing the work. Additionally, the notice must include the complaining party’s contact information, a statement that the complaint is made in “good faith,” and a statement, under penalty of perjury, that the information contained in the notification is accurate and that the complainer has the right to proceed (because he is the copyright owner or agent). Check my article at here to learn more about how to prepare a DMCA take-down notice. Even if you don’t reside in the U.S., you may use this great tool to stop an infringer whose ISP is in the U.S. from using your work.

Option #4 – Prepare a Cease and Desist/Demand Letter Yourself

When you don’t want to alienate the infringer (the infringer is a potential client and/or appears to be an innocent infringer), you may want to contact the infringer to explain that the use is not authorized and either request payment of an appropriate license fee, a photo credit with a link to your website (as discussed above), or that the infringer cease use of the image. It’s best to do this in writing – a letter by surface mail seems to have more clout than email correspondence.

Photographers sometimes send an infringer an invoice for three times their normal license fee in an attempt to resolve the infringement issue. While the 3x fee may be an industry standard and some courts have used it, is not a legal right given by any court of law or statute. Instead, U.S. law states that you are entitled to actual or statutory damages for infringement as provided by 17 U.S.C. Chapter 5, specifically section 504. The damages that you can receive from infringement – especially if you timely register your photographs – sometimes can amount to a lot more than three times your normal license fee. So you may want to think 2x before you send the 3x letter.

There are some risks in sending the letter yourself. First, the infringer may attempt to preempt an infringement lawsuit and file a request for declaratory judgment that the use is authorized. This may involve you in a legal action for which you may need legal counsel in a jurisdiction (court location) where you don’t want to litigate. Second, your demand for payment may be admissible against you if an infringement case is filed. If you demand too little, then it may limit your ultimate recovery. To avoid this possibility, include in your demand letter that “these discussions and offer to settle are an attempt to compromise this dispute.”

Option #5 – Hire a Lawyer to Send a Demand Letter

When an attorney gets involved, the matter is escalated and tensions rise. While the infringer may be more defensive, the weight of your demand letter is dramatically increased if it comes from an attorney and the infringer generally takes the matter more seriously. Some attorneys charge a flat fee to send a letter; others may charge a “contingency fee” which is based on the percentage of recovery. Or the fee may be a combination of both.

Option #6 – File a Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

Your most aggressive option is to pursue your legal remedies by filing suit. Unless you created the work outside of the United States and in a country that is a signatory to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, you must register your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office, hopefully before but at least after the infringement. (If you created the photo in a country that is a signatory to the Berne Convention, you do not have to register in the U.S. to protect your copyright or to file an infringement lawsuit in the U.S. However, if you do, then you may be entitled to statutory damages and attorneys’ fees, as noted here.) If your photo was not timely registered for this infringement, you may want to register the photo for future possible infringements, as well, to be eligible for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per willful infringing use for each photograph. See 17 USC Section 504(b) and (c). Legal fees and costs also may be recovered from the infringer. See 17 USC Section 505.

In most jurisdictions you need to have received your registration certificate to file a complaint. Unless you have a breach of contract or some other state claim, you must file your infringement claim in a federal district court. To file suit, it is best to hire an attorney to help you because the legal procedures are complicated. Note that you have three years from the date of infringement to sue for copyright infringement.

When a photo is not registered with the U.S. Copyright Office prior to the infringement (or within three months of the first publication of the photo), a copyright owner may recover only “actual damages” for the infringement (pursuant to 17 U.S.C. 504 (b)), instead of statutory damages. Courts usually calculate actual damages based on your normal license fees and/or industry standard licensing fees. One source for standard license fees is a software program called Fotoquote. You also may recover the profits the infringer made from the infringement if they aren’t too speculative.

Additional Claims
While many photographers place “watermarks” including their name and/or their copyright notice on their images or in the metadata of the file to prevent someone from infringing them, it’s fairly easy to crop or clone over the mark, or to remove metadata. Fortunately, the DMCA section of the Copyright Act provides a remedy in addition to the infringement claim when the infringer removes your CMI to hide the infringement.

Additionally, when you can prove that the infringement was done willfully, then you are entitled to enhanced statutory damages. “Willfulness” means that the infringer either had actual knowledge that it was infringing the owner’s copyrights or acted in reckless disregard of those rights. Evidence that the infringed works bore prominent copyright notices supports a finding of willfulness.

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