AGENCIES STEP UP
Stock agencies have taken a get-tough approach against
businesses that use images without permission. But
infringers accuse agencies of making unreasonable
demands, and they are sharing information and legal
strategy to make agency usage fee recovery efforts
more difficult for agenices. By David Walker
This pasT July
4, ToronTo-based sTock phoTo agency MasTerfile senT a $57,030
invoice to an unidentified company for the unauthorized Web use of five images. pay
up within ten days, the invoice said, or “Masterfile will be obliged to continue its legal
process without further notice to you.”
The recipient handed the letter over to extortionletterinfo (eli), an advocacy
group that is taking a bare-knuckles approach to fighting demands for what it con-
siders unreasonable amounts of money for unauthorized use of images. it is making
copyright enforcement more difficult and expensive for stock agencies and the at-
torneys representing them.
“a bunch of infringers are talking among each other: There’s a certain level of mob
support, so we have to pursue [infringers] pretty hard,” says Masterfile president
eli founder Matthew chan calls the demand letters from Masterfile, getty
images, corbis images and others “extortionistic.” Most are directed at small-busi-
ness owners who use images on their websites without realizing they are infringing,
chan insists. “The push-back wouldn’t be so hard if the numbers [agencies are] ask-
ing for weren’t so high,” he says. he also says agencies use legal scare tactics that
drive infringers to his website for information about how to fight back. “piss enough
people off, and there’s going to be a boomerang effect.”
it has devolved into a battle of wills, with rhetoric flying from both sides. one
person on eli’s list of so-called “copyright extortionists” because of his enforcement
efforts says eli is anti-copyright, and that the organization uses intimidation to dis-
courage copyright owners from pursuing infringers. (he asked not to be named, say-
ing, “i don’t want to be a lightning rod for unrestrained attacks from the people and
companies who want all content to be free.”)
getty says sites such as eli’s “contain a wealth of misinformation” directed at in-
fringers, and the agency has invested resources in photo licensing education efforts.
“We think it’s important that image users have access to accurate information,” an
agency spokesperson says.
image infringement is impossible to quantify. pigeon says the problem is dimin-
ishing for Masterfile, partly because the agency has a reputation for pursuing in-
fringers—it is singled out by eli as one of the most aggressive enforcers, along with
getty—and partly because there are so many images now available online, that the
chances of stealing a Masterfile image are diminished.
but infringement is on the rise overall because of digital technology. The u.s.
copyright office is studying the possibility of establishing a small claims court for copy-
right infringement, to keep the growing number of claims from clogging federal courts.
a consortium of service providers is also weighing a copyright alert system to pressure
repeat infringers to change their behavior, with penalties including blocked service.
There’s enough copyright infringement that some see enforcement as a profit
opportunity. copyright services international (csi) of Walnut, california, and
copyright defense league (cdl) of new york are two companies offering “recovery”
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