My expensive Swiss lesson in internet copyright law on pictures: Bird Lovegod

I learned a reasonably expensive lesson recently. About four years ago, my company, Ethical Much, had an article posted on the website using an image copied from the internet. It’s the kind of thing people do, right? If it’s on the internet it’s in the public domain and free to use? Or at least who cares?

Fast forward three years, and an email arrives, from a company in Switzerland, saying we owe them just over 1,000 euros for a retrospective image license and we are invited to open the attached PDFs to find out more. At the time I was pretty sure this was a straight up scam. After all, who opens PDFs from unknown companies from another country especially when they’re already demanding money? So it got deleted.

Six months later, another email arrives, and I decide to open it, and the PDFs and it shows a screen shot of the image, and a whole load of legalese, and I figure I need to take it seriously.

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So I do a bit of research, and yep, it seems they are right. It doesn’t feel right, feels more like being given a parking ticket for being one inch over the line, a sort of technically right but morally not.

Bird Lovegod has his sayBird Lovegod has his say
Bird Lovegod has his say

Certainly the price doesn’t seem fair, and it probably isn’t, and if the company had written asking for the image to be removed in the first instance, that would be more reasonable. But that’s not how they operate.

They’re a ‘legaltech’ company that uses software to search the internet for images that their clients have given them the authorisation to protect.

I disputed the invoice, and pointed out that Ethical Much exists to buy food support to the poor and needy in Sheffield and also Cambodia, and a 1,000 euro was beyond reasonable and would detrimentally impact some of the neediest people on Earth.

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They came back and offered a 65 per cent discount, taking the total price to something just over £300. Which can be paid in two installments if required.

It’s the kind of offer that that, disheartening as it is, pointless and of no value, feels like worth paying simply for the reason of avoiding an ongoing dispute with a company who would then pass it on to a debt agency, who would add more fees, and so on and so on.

It was a naive mistake, and the first thing I did after having it drawn to my attention was delete the image, and the post, and then delete every other image in the image library that I didn't personally take myself.

I guess such protections are necessary, creative people and image libraries and stock image companies need to protect their assets, I suppose, and if someone was using one of my images without my consent I guess I’d feel a bit miffed. It also feels like a rather heavy handed and legalistic approach, no warning or request to remove the image, and an initial invoice that is frankly disproportionate and extortionate. It’s not a scam, but it’s not exactly ethical either.

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Mind you, is it ethical to use other peoples images from the internet? It’s not something we really think about most of the time, the internet is free to use, and because of that it’s easy to act as if everything on there is also free to use, images, music, artworks, even writing and articles.

Clearly it isn’t. So it’s a bit of a cautionary tale I suppose. Don’t screengrab images from the internet and use them on your own posts. On social media or other websites. Lesson learned I guess.

Bird Lovegod is MD of Ethical Much.

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