Evidence Collection Ethics in Question
Many companies are now using automated robots in search and destroy missions to hunt down copyright infringers. When "evidence" is found instead of sending a cease and desist warning they send a Settlement Demand Letter. (See "Getty Images Settlement Demand Letter.")
If you have an unlicensed image on your server -- even if you are not displaying it anywhere on your website, and automated robot crawlers find it, you may get a settlement demand letter.
This includes images found in directories for templates you purchase online. For example, if you replace the image on the template for one of your own, but forget to delete the unlicensed image and a robot can find it, some image rights resellers will accuse you of violating copyright laws for simply having the file in your possession.
Illegal "Search and Seizure?"
Some legal experts have argued whether or not the practice of using automated robots to uncover "evidence" is even legal, comparing it to kicking your door in without a search warrant, or "stop and frisk" without probable cause.
Does simply having a website mean you can automatically be suspected of a crime of copyright infringement? Does any company have the legal right to send in robots to spy deep into your site for the specific purpose of uncovering damaging information and using it against you to demand payment? (Note: It is illegal to use robots to locate and "harvest" email addresses or other personal information online.)
When Getty Images finds someone violating copyright laws, they do not attempt to collect the license fee they could be owed, but inflate the "settlement" fee up to 20 times its value in punitive damages (extra money for punishment.) This is not a sum you automatically owe, it is a monetary offer that you can pay, or risk being sued.
The specific ways that Getty and other image providers go about demanding high fees under the threat of a lawsuit, has been compared to extortion. Matthew Chan and Oscar Michelen founders of www.extortionletters.com dedicate an entire website exposing shady and unethical practices by Getty Images that they call "legalized extortion."
The website http://www.zyra.info offers a lengthy article alleging that Getty Images sets up people as prey by allowing some sites to use their images without a license in hopes others will copy them. Getty also goes after the folks who use out-of-the-box templates with unlicensed images instead of going after the template creators themselves.
The scam is simple: by carefully targeting who to go after Getty Images and other image resellers can be assured of an ongoing source of income -- unwary copyright infringers.
The scam is self-perpetuating due to affiliate programs selling templates that violate copyright laws and even through websites that sell images that they do not have the right to sell. These sites are not targeted or shut down -- only the people who use them thinking they are getting a licensed product.
It is almost virtually impossible these days to be completely certain that when you buy rights to images or images on templates through any affiliate program or seemingly legitimate that you are not being set up for copyright infringement.
www.TurnkeyPublisher.com reports on a case where attorneys and photographers teamed up to deliberately scam people into using unlicensed images by allowing users to download images for free to use as wallpaper only -- when the same free images appear on websites they go after the unwitting copyright infringers.
Unfortunately for consumers, the law is clear: even if you unknowingly violate copyright laws because you were duped or taken advantage of, you can still be held liable for the illegal actions of the person you purchased a template or images from.