It was a letter from hell. When a small business or ordinary citizen gets a threatening letter from a law firm that accuses the receiver of a serious, multiyear image copyright breach, it is an experience that makes the receiver think about inevitable economic disaster. I run a small digital publishing and consulting business. We publish ebooks and articles online. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of images are included in those publications. Had we missed something, and exploited licensed material without permission?
No, we hadn’t breached anyone’s copyright. This story that I’m about tell has a happy ending. For me, the key learning from this case was to research every possible detail that could even remotely be related to it. The facts required to fend off the claim were in the details.
My first reaction was that the letter must be a scam. After I had calmed down, I searched the internet for cases other organizations and individuals may have had with Copytrack. Yes, I could find cases. Some lawyers even advertised that they already have experience to deal with Copytrack. One thing was evident: I must take action because these guys wouldn’t go away just like that.
The letter Copytrack sent us via email briefly described the claim: “… [one of our sites] is obviously using an image without permission and has exclusively commissioned us with the clarification, administration of the image rights and, if necessary, the enforcement of any copyright infringement.” The letter provided two options to solve the situation A) we send Copytrack a proof that we have a license, or B) we pay for the license a price specified by Copytrack.
Copytrack is a middleman that searches the internet for images its clients own the rights for. How Copytrack does it is their business, but image matching software has been around for a long time and today also AI, artificial intelligence, are the usual tools for tracking images.
In our case, Copytrack claimed that its client WENN Rights International Ltd owned the copyright for an image in an article we had published five years ago. Copytrack’s letter included a link to one of our articles where the image was published. It listed a wrong publication date for the article. There was no more information in the letter. The image Copytrack accused us of using without permission wasn’t even identified in the claim. Our article featured multiple images.
Sorry, but which image you said we had stolen?
Before spending any money on licenses or lawyers I thought I would do the minimal, and ask Copytrack the obvious question: which image were they referring to? It was odd that the image wasn’t identified, but what do I know – I’m not a lawyer. I also explained that all the images in the article were product marketing material provided by a business whose products we wrote about.
The threat of legal charges
The response from Copytrack came quickly: “You can verify the ownership of the image in the online image database of WENN Rights International, [a link to the image and its metadata].” The message was: show us the license, or pay up. The language in the response was more threatening this time. “Legal charges” could only be dropped if we followed the instructions.
Scary, but something wasn’t right
Now, I had access to the image details with the all important metadata, I assumed. Yes, we had published the image in an article. But where were the details? Who owned the copyright for the photograph? Who was the photographer? What were the licensing options? When and where the photo was taken? None of this type of data was available in the image database. Only an identifying number, headline and caption that likely had been written by someone who had saved the image into the database.
It was time explore the image file. I opened the image that we had published on one of our web sites in Gimp (an image editor) and in XMViewMP (a photo album and image conversion program). These programs can show the EXIF information about the camera that had captured the photo along with XMP and IPTC metadata that can be used to describe the image and its rights. This data is always saved inside the image file. Surely, a professional enterprise with copyright lawyers knew what they were doing? No, there was no copyright information, nothing about the photographer, or any other information about the rights in the image metadata.
Could it be a public domain photograph? Information about rights provided by Copytrack and Wenn International was far from convincing. Image metadata lacked practically all details. I decided to search for the same image on the internet. Google and Bing search engines have a function called reverse image search that lets you upload an image, and ask the service to find if the same image has been published online. The result was more than 100 hits. The same image had been published on leading commercial online services, popular news media sites, blogs, and other pages across the world.
It was time to let Copytrack know that they should prove their ownership for the image. A threatening letter wasn’t enough. I responded to Copytrack asking them to close the case because Wenn International can’t provide convincing information about the copyright owner, photographer, or licensing. The image metadata doesn’t include information about copyright or any other relevant information. Additionally, the same image has been published on more than 100 sites on the internet.
Case closed, goodbye
Copytrack’s response arrived in 30 minutes: Case closed. They didn’t provide any explanation.
Why Copytrack gave up
Missing details. Conflicting information. Nor Copytrack or Wenn International could provide credible copyright information about the image. Copytrack said the rights belong to Wenn International, but the image database didn’t confirm the claim. Copyright information was nowhere to be found.
We trusted that the provided product marketing images were licensed properly. The enterprise is still there, but the photos we had downloaded five years ago are not. Perhaps the images are in public domain.
Is Copytrack a legit business? Copytrack writes on its web page that it monitors the internet for unlicensed use of its clients’ images. For instance, a professional photographer signs up, submits his photos to Copytrack, and wants the enterprise to track potential illegal use of the images. It is likely that agreements are being signed where the photographer passes all relevant information related to the photos to Copytrack so that it can defend the photographer’s rights. All right, that’s straightforward. Probably a useful service for rights owners. Why, then, is Copytrack demanding payments for public domain photos?