Date updated:

Cyber criminals are now posing as copyright holders and making false allegations of copyright infringement in order to extort money from people.

What is copyright?

Copyright is an automatic right which protects various types of original creative work.  Copyright usually lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years from the end of the calendar year of the author’s death.

For example, copyright subsists in the artistic works of Pablo Picasso.  He died on 8th April 1973, which means that, under the current law, the copyright in his artistic works will expire on 31st December 2043.  From that point, his works will be in the public domain and permission will no longer be required to copy, adapt or make his work available to the public. 

What kind of allegations are being made?

In a recent trend, e-mails are being received from “copyright holders” claiming that their images have been published without permission and that payment of damages is due as a result of infringing their copyright (often with a mention of a piece of American legislation which has no application in the UK).   These e-mails invite recipients to click on a link to download evidence of the infringement which in turn downloads malicious software to carry out ransomware attacks. Malicious software can provide the sender with access to your device enabling them to steal data, encrypt files for ransom or spy on your system activity.

One example of such an e-mail, known as a phishing email, is as follows:

Hi there!

My name is [X].

Your website or a website that your organization hosts is violating the copyrighted images owned by myself.

Check out this document with the URLs to my images you utilized at and my previous publication to find the evidence of my copyrights. Download it now and check this out for yourself: https://sites.google.com/ [REDACTED]

I think you've willfully infringed my legal rights under 17 USC Section 101 et seq. and can be liable for statutory damage of up to $130,000 as set-forth in Section 504(c)(2) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) therein.

This message is official notification. I demand the removal of the infringing materials described above. Please be aware as a company, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act demands you, to eliminate and deactivate access to the infringing materials upon receipt of this particular letter. If you do not stop the utilization of the above mentioned infringing materials a law suit will likely be started against you.

I have a strong faith belief that utilization of the copyrighted materials referenced above as allegedly infringing is not permitted by the copyright owner, its legal agent, or the law.

I swear, under consequence of perjury, that the information in this letter is accurate and that I am currently the copyright proprietor or am permitted to act on behalf of the proprietor of an exclusive right that is presumably infringed.

Regards,
[X]

The urgent nature of these messages aims to spark panic, leading recipients to be fooled into clicking the link without properly considering the legitimacy of the e-mail or the possible consequences of complying with the request.

What action should be taken following receipt of an e-mail like this?

If you find yourself faced with an allegation of copyright infringement, you should not act impulsively or do anything which might put your system, and therefore your organisation, at risk.

Should you receive an e-mail similar to the example above, do not click on the link and delete the e-mail.  It is important to note that there are other emails circulating in addition to this, including one in in which the sender impersonates Twitter support to report false copyright infringements.

Whilst these types of threat are usually empty, this is not always the case. If you think the e-mail might be genuine, request the evidence by e-mail instead of clicking on the link.

There has been an increase in organisations receiving legitimate demands from third parties for payment to settle litigation for copyright infringement, ranging from hundreds of pounds to thousands of pounds.  Claims mainly relate to the organisation publishing images on its website without permission from the copyright owner or without a licence from a licensing agency, such as a stock photograph library, to do so.

Under the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988, Copyright infringement gives rise to a claim for damages suffered by the copyright owner or an account of profits made by the infringer.  Damages are designed to put the copyright owner in the position it would have been in if the infringing act had not occurred and, in this case, is likely to be the unpaid licence fee.  In most cases of use of photographs on websites without permission, the copyright owner or its representative claims an unpaid licence fee (which varies according to the use made of the work). 

What can be done to avoid copyright infringement generally?

Copyright infringement can be avoided if, prior to publishing a photograph taken from the Internet, the ownership of the copyright in the photograph is established and an appropriate licence obtained, where necessary.

It is not always easy to establish who the owner of the copyright in a photograph is because the photographer might have taken the photograph in the course of employment or might have assigned the copyright to someone else.  This does not mean that the work may be used freely, however.

The alternative is to source royalty-free stock photographs from a free picture library. 

There are some statutory exceptions to copyright infringement which exist under UK law, but these are limited and they do not cover the use of a photograph on a website without permission. 

It is imperative that website content is regularly audited to ensure that all works are either licensed, are covered by express permission for use or are original works which are owned by the website owner. 

The licence fee for use of a photograph is likely to be considerably less than the cost of dealing with an infringement claim.