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PicRights + AFP: a well-established copyright trolling operation

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PicRights is a company discussed on the Internet as a copyright troll acting on behalf of AFP (Agence France Presse). In this article, I tell you my experience with PicRights and gives you all the advice you need to avoid falling into their traps. I also make a revelation about the headquarters of PicRights in Switzerland.

If you only have 30 seconds

PicRights is a “copyright troll” acting in particular on behalf of AFP. If you have received one of their emails, please follow these 3 steps:

  1. check if you have the right to use the image or the one you used.
  2. Remove the disputed image if you do not have the rights.
  3. Check whether the image could be qualified as original and, therefore, could benefit from copyright protection.

Summary


PicRights and AFP: a well-proven cash machine

It all starts with discovering an email from PicRights in my spam box on a Friday night. My weekend will be a disaster. It’s only several weeks later that I will realize I fell into the trap and now count among copyright trolling victims. PicRights has hung me on its hunting board.

To prevent you from making the same mistakes I made, I did a lot of research and interviewed an expert in the field: Mr. Jerome Tassi.

What is copyright trolling?

Copyright trolling is a commercial activity aimed at obtaining, often by threat, financial compensation for the use of copyrighted material. Copyright trolling is mostly carried out on behalf of third parties.

Companies, often opaque, use robots to scan websites and discover unauthorized uses of images they believe copyright law applies. Psychological pressure is then exerted to obtain the payment of financial compensation out of proportion to a regular user license price. In this article, we talk about the case of PicRights, a well-known troll copyright, but others also exist.


PicRights: how the nightmare of copyright trolling began

So, it all started on a Friday evening with the discovery of an email in my spam box. This email was titled “Image License Validation for Agence France-Presse,” and its content looked like a scam.

In this email, an obscure Swiss company, PicRights, supposedly acting on behalf of the AFP (Agence France Presse), threatened me with prosecution for using a photo subject, according to them, to copyright law.

I reproduce below an excerpt from the email I received. I specify at the outset that this is done as a citation, following Article 10.1 of the Berne Convention.

 

Extract from the email received from PicRights that contains a screenshot of poor quality. As explained by Mr. Jérôme Tassi, screenshots made by troll copyrights are often refused by the courts. They do not constitute legal evidence since only a bailiff can make this kind of statement.


Who is PicRights?

The email seemed to be a little too well written to be a simple scam like the ones we used to find in our spam. So, I did some research directly on the Internet and what I found there horrified me.

PicRights has its headquarters above a pizzeria

A simple search with the terms “AFP PicRights” returns nearly 1200 results on Google. The first pages are full of horror stories of people calling for help after being threatened by PicRights. The forums are also full of testimonials from frightened people. Reading them convinced me that what I had to do was not a simple “scam.” It was about copyrights trolling by an existing company.

Picrights

PicRights GmbH is located at Albisstrasse 16 in Adliswil, Switzerland. A look at Google Map shows that it is a village house. At this same address, there is also an Italian restaurant. Image: copyrights Google Maps, Maxar Technologies, OLIG

A quick look at Google Maps tells us more about this famous company, PicRights. It is located at 16 Albisstrasse in Adliswil, a small town of 16,000 souls in Zurich’s Canton. All activities take place from a small village house (see picture above). More surprisingly, at this same address, one can also find an Italian restaurant, the Piccolino. How could a company as omnipresent as PicRights be housed in a restaurant? Everything becomes much more significant when you look at this image published by a user on Google Street View. On the 1st floor of the restaurant, there is a “business center.” PicRights is probably an empty shell whose legal address is located on the 1st floor of a restaurant acting as a mailbox. This is reassuring.

A galaxy of small companies in different countries

PicRights is a hodgepodge of small companies registered in other countries. By going through the legal (and public) documents, I was able to reconstruct the structure of PicRights.

Everything seems to be centered around PicRights Europe GmbH and the Höfinger family. PicRights Europe is indeed controlled by SIXMÜHLE Verwaltungs, which belongs to the Höfinger couple. The Austrian structure is owned by Mediapro Mediamarketing, which belongs to the Höfinger couple and their children.

who is picrights ?


What to do when you receive an email threat from PicRights?

But let’s get to the heart of the problem: how to react after receiving an email from PicRights?

My interview with Me. Jérôme Tassi and my readings of recent weeks have led me to describe a reaction in 3 steps:

1- Is the request of PicRights justified?

The first question to ask is whether PicRights can claim anything from you, in other words, if you have unduly reproduced an image. Three options are possible. Either you had the right to reproduce this image, and in this case, the case stops there. Or the image for which PicRights claims rights is not the one you used, and everything stops there. Either you used an image without having the rights, and at this point, it is time to read the next paragraph.

2- Remove the image

If you have used an image without paying for a license, immediately remove your website’s offending image. Read the next paragraph before doing anything.

3 – Assess your options before paying

Requests made by troll copyrights are often abusive. Before paying, you should therefore ask yourself about the original character of the reproduced work. The courts are rigorous in recognizing the actual nature of a piece and thus apply copyright. However, PicRights often claims rights for images that are not, factually, original within the copyright. If you are in this case, you have little to fear (and PicRights knows it).

Copyright: a meticulous legislation

PicRights claims the copyright to claim compensation. Therefore, threats of prosecution are based on the assumption that the courts will recognize the originality of the work reproduced. However, there is nothing less certain, as explained by Me. Jérôme Tassi, a lawyer at the Paris Bar who specializes in intellectual protection.

Droit d’auteur : l’image que vous avez utilisée était-elle vraiment originale ?

In my case, the image used was not original, and it is unlikely that a court would have confirmed the request of PicRights. Indeed, a Google search shows that different photographers took several pictures of the same type without any originality can be claimed in terms of framing, lighting, or post-processing. It is likely that the photographers present were gathered in the same place and were therefore forced to adopt the same angle of view.

I, therefore, invite you to do this verification. If you are a sportsman, do not hesitate to ask PicRights to prove the originality of the photo for which they request compensation. It should calm them down.


Interesting readings on PicRights x AFP

You will find below some interesting readings on the actions of PicRights.

 

 

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Author: Pierre-Nicolas Schwab

Pierre-Nicolas est Docteur en Marketing et dirige l'agence d'études de marché IntoTheMinds. Ses domaines de prédilection sont le BigData l'e-commerce, le commerce de proximité, l'HoReCa et la logistique. Il est également chercheur en marketing à l'Université Libre de Bruxelles et sert de coach et formateur à plusieurs organisations et institutions publiques. Il peut être contacté par email, Linkedin ou par téléphone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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38 Comments

  1. Hi, just received a similar email from picrights saying that 2 photos are infringing on Associated Press’s copyrights. But in the screenshot and link provided at the bottom of their email, the 2 links are BOTH not valid URLs on my webpage. The images and url do not even exist on my site. What should I do?

  2. Hi, I just received similar email from picrights claiming that 2 images infringed on AP’s copyright. But the thing is, in the screenshots and link provided at the bottom of their email, BOTH links do not exist! The URLs there are not valid URLs on my webpage. I’m really confused right now. What should I do? The images are real and do belong to AP, but those images do not exist anywhere on my site. Even the URL links provided by picrights just leads to my website saying: “page cannot be found”

  3. I’ve also been targeted by these scam artists. The advice time and time again is to ignore them (Search the forums). IF they actually serve you with court papers (extremely unlikely) then you could hire a lawyer to respond or on your own. It would be through small claims court and it would cost them more in legal fees then anything they could potentially get.

  4. They sent me a letters after letters. Basically demanding more money. I emailed them saying I took down the picture after the first letter immediately and that I wasn’t going to pay anything. They will get a law firm called Higbee and Associates to call you, scare you into either paying or “going to trial.” I called a lawyer, he took one look at the letter that the law firm sent me and said it was a scam. That is was a legit law firm who was trying to use legal loop holes. Basically, my lawyer sent them a letter saying that first off, no profits were made in direct correlation to the picture, two that there is no proof that picrights owns the picture, and three I took the picture down. Therefor, I wasn’t going to pay anything. They tried to say that they would sue me and I would have to pay their lawyer fees. My lawyer pointed it out, you can’t sue someone and that person has to be your lawyer fees. Lawyer fees are sued for in a counter claim against someone being sued.

    I sent that letter months ago and heard nothing back. If I went to trial, they wouldn’t show up. It’s not worth their time and money. This is not legal advice, but my advice is to take the letter and whatever interaction you have with them to an attorney and have them handle it.

  5. Thank you for your feedback. I think everybody should follow it and this avoid being trolled by Picrights;

  6. I spoke to the Associated Press Photo Department Executive Manager. Call them for yourself….

    He said the AP employs PIC RIGHTS to take care of the infringement problem for their copyrighted images.

    Now What?

    I have been dealing with their screenshots for over a year now! I see one article saying they are a scam, and I see another that says they are for real!

  7. I’ve received a similar email, their bad luck is that the link they pretend it used an image from AFP
    contains a format not used by our WordPress, we have a custom format and they show the image as domain/YYYY/MM/DD
    so it can’t be our website. Not to mention we never used an AFP image.
    Also, there is no log in our marketing automation for that URL to have been accessed.

  8. I have received more and more emails from them with absurd requests for images on my site. I called my lawyer, who specializes in this kind of thing, and he told me they have no right to ask for money the way they are doing. So his suggestion was NOT to reply to their emails, under any circumstances, and in any case remove the images from the site. In the following months they wrote other times with automated emails, which have no legal value. Don’t pay, and let these thieves go bankrupt.

  9. This is called a low-hanging fruit operation. In most cases, what PicRights is doing is malicious prosecution or abuse of process, which is not only illegal but wide open for counter-sue. Communication from their “legal team” is called malfeasance, which is both a felony and liable for permanent disbarment. Inventing a licensing fee post facto is criminal negligence.

    No one can invent a licensing fee above fair market value, after the fact, and demand it from average hardworking people who never knowingly misused copyrighted original work. The mountain of evidence they would have to provide to even entertain ONE allegation of ONE misused original copyright work by ONE website is beyond their pay grades. So they don’t. They just mass mail thousands of people looking for the low hanging fruit.

    And, by the by, every single one of you is protected by PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE. This does not extend to a scam company who is sending out litigious letters. They are going to get absolutely crushed.

    Also, they’ve been doxed on Reddit and elsewhere.

    You can expect that all parties involved in this scam will be facing prison time. If PicRights and Higbee had any legal standing, they would be going after large corporations who are actually guilty of copyright infringement and misuse, not random mom and pop non-profits. No judge on earth, no jury on earth, no court on earth, is going to rule in favor of a shakedown operation against everyday citizens.

    If you have the time, counter-sue now.

    I am an intellectual property lawyer. A real one.

  10. I just received a letter in the mail demanding that I take down a photo from an old site. I can take down the photo and based on what I have ready here, that I should NOT pay the $75 fee?

  11. Idem. We are a not for profit in Paris – teaching about the UN Observances – the “UN World Days”. We indeed used a photo on the website of the UN on a particular World Day – isn’t that “fair use”? The UN uses these UN Observances and relies on others to create a wave on the topic that day… but we can’t do that using the picture/screenshot of the UN website on the particular day? We’re not saying we are the UN, nor that we are the UN sub-organisation organising/leading this day – we just teach about the existence of these world days/un observances.

  12. PicRights use clever software to identify old blog posts that use obscure pictures and then auto-email the companies, using tracking software to build up a profile of the people who open the email, so they can keep emailing them. After identifying receipt of email but no engagement, they send letters to dupe the companies into thinking they have a serious adversary who will go all the way to collect exorbitant fees. These fees, they say will increase as legal costs get applied if no action is taken.
    Its all a lie. Don’t waste your breath. Put the emails in spam and the letters in the bin.
    Over many months, maybe a year, we received emails and letters from PicRights telling us we had breached copyright on a blog post 3 years ago and owed them £350. There has been scant detail on the owner of the copyright, just some reference to a picture agency that anybody could have found using Google picture search. No information on the photographer, or who commissioned the photo etc. Like others, we eventually got a letter from Burness Paull LLP. Now I’ve had threatening letters from solicitors in the past which are always addressed to me, and they clearly come from a named solicitor. The letter I had from Burness Paull was nothing like it.
    I’ve now built up a picture of PicRights. Their mission statement: extort money from individuals and small businesses that don’t have access to consistent legal advice. Use copyright as its obscure and there are bogus legal experts on forums who are keen advocates for the payment of copyright fees. Write fake reviews on Trustpilot and lies on forums. Use case management to project a professional and consistent image, and have case handlers who always negotiate the price down. Bingo, created an income stream. Hang on they said, we could extort more money if we got a law firm to write a letter. Somebody has a contact in IT at Burness Paull who can get their hands on stationary and create a group name on their mail server; wallop, we can extort even more money.
    PicRights lie on Trustpilot. They impersonate and lie on forums; my favourite “I phoned AP who told me they employ PicRights to take care of infringement problems”. They are a scammer in plain sight. They have no authority over the images they pursue. Don’t take the bait; DO NOT RESPOND to them. They have no right to know your name. Do not pay a penny. Hold your nerve. Don’t get angry; relax, pretend it never happened, because nothing will.

  13. Solution: If you have a small scale blog with limited views and “profit’ I recommend immediately sending, directly to the copyright owner, an offer to pay for the use of the image via certified mail.

    You can then tell the troll that you have already made an offer to the copyright holder, thus killing their ability to run up a bill via the lawyers.

  14. Don’t feed the trolls! If you feed them, like all gullible people do, the trolls will grow more impudent and more greedy. Don’t feed the trolls.

  15. We accidentally responded to them a few weeks ago, and have been going back and forth and noting the flaws in the claim. We immediately took down the images, we didnt gain any profit from the pictures, and the website was already closed down. These claims came from Reuters/AFP

    Will anything escalate? Will they actually sue me?

    We’ve remained anonymous throughout the entire exchange.

  16. I got one that asked for over $900 for one image. The image was used as a background image with people standing in front of it. I mean, almost any image would have done the same thing. Bullshit. If I knew it would cost $900 I could have chartered a flight there and taken the picture myself!

  17. They emailed me today asking me for €1075. I’ve been in tears! I did respond to them to appeal to their humanity but now I’ve come across this and feel stupid

  18. Share this blog post as much as you can so that others can avoid falling in this trap

  19. Has anyone here ever actually been taken to court but Picrights UK and the UK law firm Burness Paull…if so how did it go

  20. interesting posts, thanks to all the responders.. just got my letters- proceding to remove the images and wait it out and hope nothing comes of it

  21. Yup. I too just got trolled for an image used under ‘Fair Use’ provisions, in a pdf of an an academic presentation for educational purposes, with the source clearly attributed. I’m not going to take the presentations down, and am going to block their email address.

  22. Everyone who has been abused by this fraudulent company should send an email to VP Of Sales, geoff cannon and the CEO Alfred Hoefinger

  23. We are currently being trolled for an image used in an article… said image was removed. Still getting letters, emails from PicRights. Not paying. It’s all very silly. I have not communicated with them at all and will not.

  24. I received a similar letter from Picrights, including a agreement to sign. It describes the fee as not being subject to vat. “S’agissant d’une indemnité transactionnelle destinée à mettre un terme à un
    litige opposant les Parties, la somme susvisée n’est pas soumise à la TVA.” Is this actually true?
    Fyi the fee is described as:”Le montant demandé a été déterminé par notre client, basé sur le coût de la licence qui aurait dû être achetée au préalable, (en considérant le type d’usage, l’emplacement et la durée d’utilisation) ainsi qu’une part des frais occasionnés du fait de cette utilisation sans autorisation.”

  25. Hello,

    thank you for your message. Unfortunately, since I’m not an accountant, I can’t confirm this is free from VAT.

  26. If one used GETTY image with photographer’s name and GETTYIMAGES watermark on the photo showing up clearly, plus the image used as a non-profit news article in a blog or a website, would this still be considered as “copyright infringement”?

  27. What if an image was used in a blog with their standard label with the photographer’s name and GETTYIMAGES watermark on the photo showing up clearly (expecting it to be a credit for the photographer), would this be considered as a copyright abuse? The photographer would be receiving proper credit since their name would be shown on the photo and free advertisement for the Getty.

  28. So all of you have used someone else’s work without paying for it and now that they have found out, you are all upset that they actually are asking you to pay for it.

    It’s not a scam and it’s not threatening or unfair at all. You all want to get paid when you get up in the morning and go to work right – it’s exactly the same. They are using companies specialized in finding these unlicensed usages cause they don’t have the tools, skills or time to do it themselves.

    In the end a photographer should have been paid or at least given his accept before his work was used by all of you.

  29. I’ve just received the same letter as most – for an over enthusiastic Facebook post celebrating a large public event in our area and saying how excited I was. The post was seen by 22 people, received 3 likes and now it seems I’m on the wrong side of copy-write law. I’ve tried contacting AFP direct but their ‘contact’ page isn’t working unfortunately. Am I ok to ignore the email from PicRights?

  30. you should remove the post.
    As far as the outcome of picrights’ claim is concerned, it depends on your country. There are laws to follow to make such a claim valid and obviously Picrights uses tactics to bypass them while still being on the right side of the law.
    Don’t try to contact them. Never. Rather, invest a few $ in a meeting with a lawyer to assess the seriouness of the situation.

  31. Picrights contacted me to remove copyrighted image. It took me a while to find the image in presentation attached to one of my blog posts. I’m not the author of presentation – it was received from an external source and I don’t quite know who is liable for copyright payment if this was a legitimate case – but I’ll leave it online and see what happens. It is an official presentation from the Police (not the eyewear one)

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