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PicRights Ltd. and Law Firm of Higbee & Associates seeking enormously high damages for imagery allegedly being the subject of dispute

Providing no valid evidence and demanding that the money be paid out immediately and unconditionally can lead to filing a report with the Internet Crime Complaint Center
>> PUBLISHED ON JUNE 25, 2020
Intro
We have seen or read about a number of companies, bloggers and other website owners affected by PicRights Ltd. ("PicRights") and a California-based law firm of "Higbee & Associates" with their copyright enforcement letters - or we should call them threats - over the past few years. As stated in their letters, they are acting on behalf of "Agence France-Presse" and other third-party content owners to "obtain compensation for one's unauthorized past use of their imagery".
The Wild West style of extortion introduced by PicRights and the overly informal language of communication used by Mathew K. Higbee representing Higbee & Associates, which is not at all the way a reputable attorney at law should address an issue, involves walking on thin ice hand in hand with copyright trolling that is likely to eventually result in reporting a cyber crime complaint. Little is written about this, so bearing in mind that we are a socially responsible company with rich experience, we will try to help everyone who came into trouble because of the above-mentioned PicRights, Higbee & Associates and other "money hunters" alike.
Subject of the dispute: Unauthorized use of Agence France-Presse's imagery
In the present case which we have documentation for, PicRights states that they are acting on behalf of Agence France-Presse and that a violation of their copyright was committed due to the public publication of certain photos, regardless of the fact that they were previously published on other portals as well. They cite screenshots from the website as "proof of use". The compensation they are seeking is enormously high and certainly by far exceeds the value of the photographs allegedly being the subject of dispute. They demand that the money be paid out to them immediately, unconditionally and without discussion. If they say that the photos are theirs, there isn't anything to discuss, is there? Admittedly, they also leave the possibility to prove them wrong. They, however, don't want to argue with you, their goal is to charge you as much money as possible even if it involves poaching or clutching at straws.
This type of behavior is nothing new and is often used by influential, "major" companies (or those who want to present themselves as such) when representing their interests to let you know you don't mess around with them.
Generally speaking, it is no coincidence that lawyers from California or New York were chosen to act on behalf of third-party content owners, mostly because of the innate belief that a CA or NY-based business is considered authoritative over the rest of the United States and, hopefully, over the rest of the world as well. Our experience tells us that thinking about the consequences of what they say or do is not one of their virtues (for more details, check this example, or this one too).
Let's split this issue by layers and go through each of them, one by one.
Valid Evidence vs. Incomplete Allegations
1. A screenshot or snapshot cannot be considered "proof of use". The reasons are obvious. Anyone can edit any part of a screenshot, change, crop or delete a part of it, and he can do it very easily. And then he can say that it is an "authentic display" of the content of someone's website and accuse him of anything, including pornography. The screenshot can only be an accompanying illustration coming up with some much stronger proof of ownership.
2. Where do these screenshots come from? As we were told for this particular case, the statistics from the site showed that the website was crawled by a sort of automated software with an IP address registered in Israel, which opened the web pages and took screenshots at fairly equal intervals. It is not illegal in itself, but the misuse of the collected information is. Namely, no one paid attention to the terms of use and purpose of the website clearly stated on each page. Specifically, it is by law granted a permission for reproducing public works which appear to be a constituting part of the current event presented to the public to the extent of being appropriate for the purpose of informing. This is not an isolated case and many of you will find it qualify under the fair use doctrine in the law of the United States, for example.
3. What kind of evidence would be considered solid enough for PicRights and others to be obliged to adduce? Could it be an excerpt from the register of intellectual property rights holders? No, and this is something we want to particularly emphasize: registering your work with an authorized copyright agency, in itself, is neither proof of ownership, nor of the right to use one's intellectual property (unless the property is yours, of course). There is an advantage of registering a copyright pertaining to the ability to recover statutory damages and attorney's fees in a successful action. However, the fact is that anyone can download content from online sources and register it under his own name, which does not make him the owner or copyright holder of that content. So, what is the real evidence of one's ownership and/or one's right to use a copyrighted digital work?
4. The party seeking damages must enclose the infringed photograph either in physical or digital form (we are focused on digital forms here) in full resolution and original format. Photographs provided in different dimensions, either larger or smaller, and in formats other than the original are not considered authentic works, but only derivates that, more or less, look alike the originals. For example, if the original photo is 1280x720, PNG, 32-bit depth and someone, who came into possession of a 640x360, PNG, 24-bit depth photo looking like the original, cannot attach that photo as proof of ownership. There is only one original, there are no two originals - only more or less look-alikes, which can be obtained in various legal and illegal ways. It begs the question of determining the authenticity of an image/photo. There is no definitive answer to this question, but there are two procedures that are very close to the definitive:
  • First, the alleged owner must provide evidence of when, how and where the photograph was taken, along with the date it was published as such. The question of its registration date is also to be raised. If it turns out that the application was submitted shortly before or after PicRights or Higbee & Associates contacted you, it is reasonable to believe that they first saw the picture on your website and then went on registering it, which automatically disables them to trigger the possibility to receive compensation from you.
  • The second is related to the presence of a digital watermark in the claimed images. The watermark data is physically embedded in the file forming an integral part of the whole. On the one hand, digital watermarks help us determine the authenticity of digital images being sold, bought, or reviewed. On the other hand, they provide copyright protection for intellectual property in a digital world and give users access to publicly available information about the copyrighted work. Watermarking is not mandatory, but if a watermark cannot be detected, there can be no trustworthy copyright protection or file recognition procedure.
Before anyone can sue you, there must be proof that you have been contacted properly and on time and that you have been duly informed of everything. That's why they so persistently insist that you reply to their emails and open the links therein contained, so they can record your activities and your exact location, among other things.
What you should do
We will not advise you to either reply to or ignore PicRights' letters (we will certainly not advise you to hire a lawyer for something you don't even know if it's legally grounded), but if anyone insists to respond, we advise you to ask them the following questions:
1. Do they have authentic originals of the claimed images/photos?
2. Do they have evidence of the origin of these photographs (who made them, when they were made, how they were made, on what occasions they were made etc.)?
3. Has the registration been made? If it has, when (exactly) has it been made and in which countries?
4. Do the photographs have built-in watermarks and what technique can be used to determine their existence?
Conclusion
Simply put, providing no valid evidence and demanding that the money be paid out immediately and unconditionally can result in filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Filing a class action against the party caught in doctoring evidence and extorting money is also an option.
On the other hand, if valid evidence is provided and presented to the public by the party seeking compensation, it is clear that such an issue must be addressed properly and taken seriously.
If your experience is similar to this, please contact us or leave a comment.
* We are not attorneys and the above is not legal advice. If you seek legal advice, consult a competent, licensed attorney in your area.
* This content is in compliance with our Terms Of Use. We are a socially responsible company that aims to warn people of the inconvenience and damage that irresponsible companies and individuals can cause.
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VA (2022/01/13 04:13:43)
Asked the 4 questions posted here and below is the answer:1. They don't have authentic originals.2.They sent a screenshot with watermark whereas when we downloaded there is no watermark in google. 3.There is no copyright registration information. If we want to litigate, they will locate registration info or apply for registration /proceed further for damages. Since they lack in registration information they are providing option to discuss on license purchasing. What is the advise here?
Admin (2022/01/14 11:46:18)
Thank you for your messages, VA. In your case, the point is pretty clear. Based on what you have written, you have determined that the other party has not presented valid evidence for its claims and therefore has no right to insist on any claims against you. Your lawyer may advise you on further legal steps, but we advise you not to accept any subsequent "corrected" evidence or license applications in response to what is written here.
VA (2022/01/12 23:59:22)
Excellent write up. We have got notice from Higbee and we are going to talk to the attorney today. This article is an eye opener.
Francis (2022/01/07 22:22:02)
I'd just like to say thank you for the solid information and advice, and for helping everyone figure this out.
Admin (2022/01/08 12:38:10)
You're welcome, Francis. Glad we could help. Thank you for your message.
Mikael Brucker (2021/12/23 23:38:05)
I decided to call the company they claim to represent. I am skeptical that picrights.com actually have a relationship with these companies. In my case it is a company called cartoon stock LtD. I'll keep you all posted. I would be curious if there is a way to counter sue should we find out that they don't actually have a relationship with the companies they claim to represent.
Danny (2021/11/23 17:14:57)
Hi, I received one of these emails saying I used images from Reuters News
Matt (2021/09/21 18:02:15)
Hi, I have just received one of these letters here in the UK. They have sent me a screenshot of the image in question. I have been doing lots of research on them but i do not seem to be able to find much on people having the same problem here in the UK. The advice you give below to others, ia that advice i could apply here in the UK? I.E Ask them for proof of where and when the image was taken, who owns it etc etc... I almost paid to get them off my back but after reading how some people get hounded even after payment i am now seriously worried. Thank you for a great site, has brought some relief. Matt
Admin (2021/08/22 20:47:35)
Hi Matt, thank you for your message. Yes, you can apply any of our advice in the UK too. True indeed - generally speaking, people should be aware of the possibility that a one-time payment may not be enough and that they may be required to pay more. If you are willing to pay once, why wouldn't some try to make you pay several times more? It makes sense, doesn't it?
Laura (2021/08/20 11:32:49)
I received a letter from PicRights yesterday, and immediately did a Google search. I assumed it was a scam. From a practical perspective even if hypothetically I would want to use their images without paying a license, there's an obvious watermark with "Getty Images AFP" on them. I don't even have the Photoshop skills to remove it if I wanted to. I write historical fiction, so when I'm looking for portraits and sketchings of historical figures, I've noticed that Getty's scanned tons of related images from out of copyright 19th Century books. So when I search for "Marie Antoinette," there's a big ugly watermark of "Getty Images" on them. I've never bothered with their images in the first place. I scratched my head over the image they claimed to be theirs, and gave them my attorney's address and phone number. Now I'm wondering if I should have just ignored them flat out.
Admin (2021/08/24 01:34:14)
Hi Laura, we have to be very precise when it comes to determining whether a work is protected or not. The digital watermark we are talking about is the so-called "invisible watermark" and it is much more than just drawing an inscription on an image. First of all, the invisible watermark is based upon a complex mathematical procedure and cannot be removed from a digital document. On the other hand, a plain watermark (i.e. an inscription over an image as most people think of it) can be removed in one way or another and technically, it cannot constitute relevant proof of copyright. It can only serve as a warning that the image may be copyrighted and that someone may have relevant proof of ownership. As for those who want to claim copyright over images from history books and who cannot be clearly associated with these books or images - well, they really should provide a very convincing and detailed explanation for that. So, you should always consider the facts first, and then act.
Bob (2021/07/12 08:23:26)
I actually got contacted by Reuter thru my PO Box and eventually Higbee emailed me. Basically the image in question was part of a theme with demo data and blog posts. The image screenshot they sent was dated before the website was even published so that's proof of a bot crawl. I do have a legit terms of service that was posted 6 months before I installed the theme which they have clearly violated to obtain information. I'm honestly not sure where to go from here but I provided my theme license and an explanation of how Reuter has obtained their information that goes against my sites terms of service. I also mentioned I was not a commercial entity and the site was made for educational purposes. Not sure if I should be worried or not. I honestly don't mind paying them a small amount to go away but not the $1500 they are asking for. Any tips?
Brian Greunke (2021/04/12 14:46:04)
I received an email from PicRights demanding $400. The designer of our wordpress website used the photo when the "revamped" our website 2 years ago. The designer is no longer alive. They passed away a little less than a year ago. I sent an email to PicRights and explained as much. We are a nonprofit group that uses our website for information and announcements. PicRights countered with a $200 fine. We have until 4/15/21 to pay. Advice?
Admin (2021/04/12 15:58:18)
Hi Brian, what proof of ownership did PicRights provide? On what basis did they set the price at $400? They are obligated to give a decent explanation for their claims.
SR (2021/03/24 16:23:41)
My small company (husband and wife) used PART of an image of a jumbo jet on our small website. The original image was found by Googling "copyright-free travel image". It had no watermark across it or name of owner. A few days ago I received an email from PicRights with a screenshot. I've since looked at AP's site and the original (full) image is there, so it seems they do own it. If I licensed it for a year it would cost around £140; PicRights have requested 12 times that! To be honest the image (to me) was worth no more than a few bucks at most - we only used it because we didn't know anything about copyright on images, but it seems ignorance is no defence. I have contacted my government representative (Member of Parliament) and the AP, offering to licence the image for, say 6 or 12 months as a gesture of good faith. The image is no longer on our site (removed as soon as we established it was copyright). Interested to hear more about this - surely when Google shows these images when you search for "copyright-free", and there's no clear ownership stated on them, then ignorance SHOULD be a strong mitigating factor, especially where the defendant didn't gain any specific monetary value from the image and removed it as soon as they found out.
LT (2021/03/02 20:12:39)
I received an email almost two weeks ago that had a screenshot of what one of the commenters here referenced - which was a 'highlighted' image on the front page of the site that would take you to the blog. No proof of who owned the image in it. When I went to Reuters, I saw that I had used the image in 2017 but it was not registered by Reuters until 2018. What are next steps? I have seen many people who are being harassed and some who have received court papers from this law company...I do not have time or inclination to deal with any of this. In fact I have even gone so far as to take my sites off line completely until I have this sorted.
Admin (2021/03/02 23:25:15)
Hi LT, PicRights and the law firm they work with are required to submit valid proof of ownership, including but not limited to authentic originals of the claimed images, evidence of origin, registration date (followed by the list of countries the registration is applicable in). If you know anyone who has been prosecuted for this, please let us know. We would like to have a look at the papers and see what evidence they are coming to court with. It is one thing to threaten someone via email, but presenting evidence to a judge is a different story.
Dave Labanow (2021/01/03 01:11:03)
I Use a WordPress RSS feed Plug-in that also includes the the thumbnail image attached with the news article (they say I infringed with the AP image, the link was to a FOX news report). The plug-in has a check box feature to include the image with the link to the news article.
Excerpt from letter: After conferring with legal counsel, I (A**** H**** of PicRights) have been advised to respond as follows: in the links that you sent to both the FOX RSS feed and your own website, the images used in connection with the articles in the feed do not appear. This shows that you have the ability to disable or turn off the display of the thumbnail images that previously appeared with the articles on your website, but you did not do so. This claim is not about using an RSS feed, which is permitted, but about reproducing our client's work on your website without obtaining a valid license. What you have provided shows that you did not need to display those images as part of the RSS feed, which supports our client's claim.
Patricia Browne (2020/12/01 17:31:44)
HI...got the same letter as everyone else with a screenshot of the image and page. Not specifics around image ownership (except on behalf of Reuters - who they want me to think owns the image) This may or may not be true since an image search does not link up to Reuters at all.My first impulse is to tell them that the image has been removed and I consider it resolved.But you also got me thinking. If they are taking screenshots of my website, with my copyrighted content, aren't they, in fact, breaking copyright laws? I did not give them permission to take these screenshots and store them on their servers.Hmm....I smell a class-action lawsuit here.
Admin (2020/12/01 23:41:15)
Hi Patricia, this is my opinion that you can adhere to or not: if, for example, they take screenshots of your site for educational or informational purposes, it should not be considered a violation of copyright law (or any other law). But if your content is stored elsewhere without your permission and if it is misused for sending threats, extorting money or in any way deceiving you or anyone else, it leads to a whole series of violations of the law in most countries of the world. Contacting an intellectual property lawyer would certainly help in obtaining legal advice.
Liz (2020/11/17 16:50:46)
Hi, I just received an email with a screenshot that said "this is from page 12 of your blog". I went to page 12 of my blog, and it doesn't match their screenshot. This was years ago, so I'm only assuming that the blogs have been removed. But I have no way of knowing if they didn't alter the screenshot, either. The picture in question is gone. Their "proof of use" was just a screenshot.
Admin (2020/11/17 19:05:22)
Hi Liz, definitely, a screenshot is no "proof of use". Any pixel in the image can be easily modified and cannot be considered proof as such. Some much more serious evidence must be provided to file any claim of copyright infringement.
Phil B. (2020/11/16 22:53:24)
Hi,I was intending to use a photo through which their only proof a link of the page. However, I had not put the page into action yet even, and there was no way to even access it through my site. The fact that they did with their web crawler software is impressive, but would not have been accessible otherwise. They have not done their duty in terms of "usage" which was not existent. Do they have to prove "use?"
Admin (2020/11/17 00:19:35)
Hi Phil, if I understand you correctly, the web page that would contain the claimed photo was never published, yet the photo was somehow located on your server. Was that photo stored in one of the directories or subdirectories available online?
Jesse (2020/11/07 01:30:48)
Yeah, I got the same issue. I took down the image. Haven't responded. Got a letter from Higbee asking for triple more... $3,600. Gonna just keep ignoring. Never gonna pay that. Such a scam.
TSW (2020/10/12 09:31:44)
I also received an email from PicRights. The email had a screen from the non-profit religious association's website, which I help manage absolutely for free. I found the photo at wall.alphacoders.com, where there is no information about the author or copyright, no watermark (anyway, the photo is still there, only horizontally reflected). The photo was used as many times smaller than the original and served only as a background for textual information. After receiving the e-mail, I immediately deleted the photo. Should I do more? Write them back or contact DesignPics directly and try to get things done with them?
Admin (2020/10/12 14:30:10)
Hi TSW, PicRights is required to show valid proof of ownership which includes providing authentic originals of the claimed images (with the original image size), evidence of origin, registration date (followed by the list of countries the registration is applicable in) and preferably, a digital watermark assigned to the image. If PicRights didn't provide the above, there is really no need to write them back. If you know where the pic was taken from, sure you can contact the provider and inform them on the issue.
lorenzo (2020/10/05 17:57:39)
hello therei need help on this please email back at um***12 at live com
Admin (2020/10/05 21:49:12)
Hi Lorenzo, we'd be more of help if you could tell us more details about your issue.
kiki (2020/09/11 00:45:13)
hi, i've actually got an e-mail from PicRight.com demanding more than $1000 today. i was posting a small photo from Ruters after some retouch of clipping and changing colors in my blog.it really scared me. in this corona virus situation, i lost my job and i even worry about next month rent... it's impossible to pay such money to them right now.i removed the image and started making research about PicRight.com scam and came across this page. i also got to know that so many people are getting 'scammed' by them.i'm not sure what to do, but the information of this page was very helpful. thank you so much. i may ignore them for now and let's see what happens?
Admin (2020/09/11 23:52:34)
Hi, you are welcome, we are glad to help. Yes, that's true, their emails are composed in such a way as to scare people first. What did you receive as proof of use? Was it a screenshot only, or they provided you with some more evidence?
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