The scam worked precisely because it was well-balanced on my guilt and my obedience. Possibly also because I am, by DNA, a rule-follower. Until, of course, I am not. Which is how I recognized extortion and scam.
You won’t find the name of the troll who took up a week of my life in this post, because I don’t want to feed them, make them notice me, or start up with me again. I’m writing this to both warn and protect others.
If you read my blog, you know I use a mix of illustrations–my own artwork, photographs, and occasionally images from other people. I clearly cite the source each time. In the rigid world of copyright, strictly speaking, that is not enough. I should have written permission before I use an image from someone else. That’s the rule. Hardly anyone behaves that way in blogs anymore.
I use a lot of images from Creative Commons, ones that require only attribution. (There are a variety of licenses, so choose carefully.) It’s important to me never to choose a photo from an archive, a company that sells images, or a site that requires royalty payment. Those sites are for artists to make money and I want artists to make money.
In a post now almost a year old, I used a photo and forgot to paste the attribution link in place, much like forgetting that attachment you promised in the email. I’d taken it from an education site, one that offered to let you take worksheets without asking for permission. The photo appeared in a few other places on the internet.
Enter the troll. I get an email from a law firm, in very formal language, accusing me of
copyright infringement and demanding payment of roughly $1,000.00 for the way I used the image. Not money I have lying around in the couch pillows. They cited the copyright law and demanded immediate payment while mentioning that removing the image would not be enough. A screen shot of my blog page was attached as proof of violation.
First, I panicked. Then I breathed. Then I looked very carefully at the email. There were some very subtle signs that the email might not be what it seemed. Most large companies have legal departments that will ask you to remove the image first, and give you a short window to comply.
This was a law firm that claimed to represent an archive. No offer of compliance, and threat of punitive damages (they own the copyright or represent the person who does) not just damages (based on size and reach of the blog).
When I Googled the company’s name, I found dozens of tales of people who had negotiated a lower price and then paid up. The company seemed to be the modern version of an ambulance-chasing law firm, one that demands payment for copyright infringement, which happens at a rate much greater than fender benders.
Copyright law is tricky. Damages are assessed on size of image and reach, and while they could see the size, they had no idea of the reach. I did, however. Sad to say for my ego, but good for this case, it was a blog post that has gotten very little attention.
Then I looked up the company and found it used an address very close to a courthouse and a legal center. Perfect for scaring people. More digging around threw some doubt if that “legal company” was actually in that building, but no proof.
Next, I went to the archive the company said it represented. I searched their entire database and did not find the image. The images they did represent were far more formal and finished than the cartoon-y one I used.
In one of the uses of the image I had taken, I found, barely legible, a credit line between two images. I looked up the artist. I could find no website for the artist, no Facebook page, nothing else. It’s odd to Google someone and get nothing. Very odd.
I spoke to a friend of mine who had studied law (although not copyright law) and asked her to read my reply. She suggested a copyright attorney.
My reply to the law firm was a recap of what I’ve posted here. I also asked for proof that the company owned the registration for the copyright–that gives them permission to sue me for a larger amount. I said I valued the protection of copyright and my language showed no fear, no threat, just facts.
They replied immediately saying that unless I paid, they would sue me immediately, and the items I had asked for didn’t need to be proven (by them) till discovery, a step in the lawsuit process. The email’s letterhead was slightly different than the original. The font was different, too. There was an idiomatic mistake in the English, just a small one. Easy to miss. And three sentences were verbatim from the original. And I could tell they had not read my email, as it was not a response, just an escalating threat.
I decided to take the risk that paying them anything would mean that I’d never hear the end of it. I began to look through my blog posts and realized that going through every blog, checking every image to make certain it came from Creative Commons or education blogs, or getting written permission would kill my business. The “check” alone took six hours.
I contacted an intellectual property attorney, who said that what I was about to do was risky, but my risk assessment was correct. A negotiation means I’m willing to pay and admit to being wrong. It also encourages every troll and phisher to add me to their list of people willing to be extorted.
Using the troll’s own technique, I replied using paragraphs from the original letter, adding that I had hired an intellectual property attorney to represent me. That was 11 days ago, and I have not heard from them since.
Everyone should be careful not to violate copyright, and every creative soul who registers work should be paid for the use. No doubt. But there are also people who will scare you into giving up money and quite possibly that money won’t go to the artist at all.