COPYRIGHT - 08.04.2021

Copyright trolls targeting SMEs

Using what appears to be a “free photo” on your website, or streaming a movie can end up costing your business thousands of pounds if copyright protected material is used without permission. What’s to know and why are SMEs particularly vulnerable?

Copyright claims

Small family businesses and voluntary organisations are being ambushed with demands for huge payments after publishing seemingly free images available through popular photographic sites online. They are victims of an elaborate copyright enforcement scheme - it’s legal but morally dubious.

Copyright protection. Copyright protects various forms of work and stops others from using it without permission. Protected works may include music, books, photographs, films and many other forms of creative work. Infringement can arise when copyright protected material is copied or distributed without the copyright owner’s permission.

What is copyright trolling?

Basically, it’s the enforcement of copyright claims for money through threat and litigation. Citizens Advice calls them “pay up or else” schemes. In November 2020, Computer Weekly reported on an elaborate scheme being used by a photographer. Example. The troll offers free to share materials. However, these come with complex licensing terms (the small print) that they bet on few people reading.

The troll then crawls the internet, for example using image search technology, to find out who has been using the images, films or other materials without permission, e.g. leaving out a weblink to the original, or lack of prominent credit, etc. The troll targets hundreds or thousands of defendants seeking quick settlements priced just low enough that it is less expensive for the defendant to pay the troll rather than defend the claim.

SME target. This makes SMEs easy prey - £500 can seem cheap compared to a court case where costs could run into thousands of pounds.

What to do?

Receiving a letter with a demand for hundreds of pounds can be stressful. It’s important not to ignore it, even if you believe that you or anyone with access to your internet connection hasn’t shared the copyright protected material without the copyright owner’s permission.

Don’t panic. Follow these steps

The first thing to do is to get the facts straight. Understand what the material (or item) in question is and when the infringement took place. If it’s not detailed, ask the claimant for it. Tip. If they can’t do this they have “no right to try to claim a settlement or damages from you for copyright infringement and the letter may be a scam” , says Citizens Advice. Reference to the Digital Economy Act 2010 should also ring alarm bells.

Check with others who have access to your internet connection. Trolls can focus on films too, as a high profile case involving Sky proved. The chances of you being targeted could well have increased with everyone locked down and streaming more and more material. Tip. It’s the responsibility of the copyright owner to prove who has committed the infringement.

Seek advice. Your internet service provider may be able to tell you if the letter is part of a legitimate enforcement process. Your solicitor should also be informed. Tip. When using any images, e.g. for the company’s website, carefully check the copyright requirements. If you are unsure what they mean, go elsewhere or consult your solicitor before using them.

SMEs are easy prey because they are more likely to pay than risk the cost of litigation. If you receive a letter relating to some form of copyright infringement check the details - the claimant has to provide these. Take particular care when using photos for your website etc., checking the small print of the copyright requirements.

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