Thinking outside the box – A copyright scam?

Kean Richmond

· General

Disclaimer : Unsplash is a fantastic resource for photographers, designers and others. At Bronco we’ve used it for a number of years for a wide range of uses, and we’ll continue to do so. Nothing in this blog post is written with the aim of discrediting the work Unsplash or it’s photographers are doing. However, we believe this story should be told in order to give others the power to protect themselves.

On Feb 26th 2021 we were contacted out of the blue by an individual claiming we had infringed their copyright by utilising an image on our blog. This image was found on a blog post dated 3rd March 2020 and sourced from Unsplash.

Initially this individual requested proof we had licensed the image. Assuming nothing sinister we stated this had been downloaded from Unsplash and as a royalty free stock library we had no license other than the one provided on the website.

After their response, with a bill for included £1600, we decided to remove all instances of the image on our website, out of an abundance of caution.

A few emails went back and forth claiming that the license we provided was insufficient and that we would be expected to compensate the copyright owner. But knowing we were in the right, we weren’t going to be bullied into giving someone an easy pay day.

Is this a scam?

At the time of these earliest emails the domain used for this individuals email address had no website (though does now) and was created around 6 months prior.

Also the address on their email footer was registered to some 31 other companies including a company selling post boxes which we assume is something this person used to appear more legit.

With all this in mind we viewed this to be nothing more than a scam and eventually neglected to respond. We hoped by not engaging with this person they would simply go away and find a more willing mark.

Fast forward a few weeks

But they didn’t give up. Instead they continued to contact us requesting proof of license or payment before engaging with lawyers. As they never got lawyers involved we assume these were empty threats which they couldn’t continue with long term. But by this time we had an abundance of proof that we had sourced the image from Unsplash, that their license extends beyond an image being removed from their website and that we hadn’t infringed on any copyright.

After sending this information we also contacted Unsplash directly. Their response was nothing short of fantastic. Within a couple of hours they had confirmed their license, that our use of the image was legal and had also contacted the photographer who had recounted that they sold the image on the 14th Feb 2021, some 12 days prior to us first being contacted.

This simply confirmed to us that this individual is running a scam, where they’re buying freely available imagery in the hope to trap those who have downloaded the images previously and, out of fear, capitulate to their demands. To have bought an image that has probably been downloaded many times and chase infringements within days of purchase shows an individual with a complete lack of common sense or someone impatient when it comes to maliciously ripping people off.

Not giving up

Even when we presented the evidence we had received from Unsplash this person dug deeper and started to claim GDPR infringements for having contacted Unsplash, and was going to contact their lawyers regarding this. After our last email, again refuting their claims, we decided it was again time to go silent. It’s only been a few days but we’ve yet to have another response, but I expect this might not last forever.

Whilst a little email war was a fun distraction when we knew we were legally in the right, there’s only so much fuel you can give to such individuals before you have to focus on the things that bring in the money. Our intention is to not respond to any future emails, but that might depend on what we receive next.

So why this post?

As mentioned at the start of this post, we think Unsplash is an amazing service, especially after how they helped provide additional information and even went to the lengths of contacting the original photographer. This post is in no way aimed at putting people off downloading or uploading images on Unsplash. Even after this we will still continue to use the service and would recommend others to do also.

However, we’re concerned that the situation we found ourselves in is likely one that others may one day find themselves in, or maybe already have with the exact same image and same company. Unfortunately some of these individuals may have given into the demands for payment out of fear that not doing so could escalate to something worse.

We’ve not named the individual/company who have approached us out of an over-abundance of caution. But even if we did name this person there’s nothing to stop them moving to a different identity, so adding this won’t help many. Our main goal is to help others identify this kind of scam if they’re similarly contacted.

What to do

You could completely ignore them from the start, but in case you don’t here’s what we suggest you do if you’re ever contacted by someone claiming copyright infringement illegally…

  1. Get all the evidence you can. When you downloaded the image? Does the image filename include ‘unsplash’ or the website you downloaded it from? What earliest cached version of your website can you find the image or it’s filename in the code (web archive?). Can you find the image on other websites?
  2. Try to find out if the image has been recently purchased from the original photographer
  3. Contact Unsplash, they were a real help to us
  4. Constantly recite the Unsplash License, and these FAQ’s (one, two) to whoever is contacting you
  5. Note that Unsplash is now owned by Getty Images. Getty is a huge company who can ill afford Unsplash to become a breeding ground for scam artists like this. Their license will be legally water-tight.
  6. Never pay a dime. Let them threaten you all they want but certainly get legal advice before you hand over anything.

Lastly. None of this applies to genuine copyright infringement. Always download images from a reputable source and do not steal imagery from websites or Google Images.

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