PicRights Ltd. and Law Firm of Higbee & Associates seeking enormously high damages for imagery allegedly being the subject of dispute

Providing no valid evidence and demanding that the money be paid immediately and unconditionally imply reporting a cyber crime fraud
>> PUBLISHED ON JUNE 25, 2020
Intro
We have seen or read about a number of companies, bloggers and other website owners affected by PicRights Ltd. ("PicRights") and a California-based law firm of "Higbee & Associates" with their copyright enforcement letters - or we should call them threats - over the past few years. As stated in their letters, they are acting on behalf of "Agence France-Presse" and other third-party content owners to "obtain compensation for one's unauthorized past use of their imagery".
The Wild West style of extorting money introduced by PicRights and the overly informal language of communication used by Mathew K. Higbee representing Higbee & Associates, which is not at all the way a respectable attorney at law should address an issue, imply walking on thin ice of copyright trolling, which is likely to eventually result in reporting a cyber crime fraud. Little is written about this, so bearing in mind that we are a socially responsible company with rich experience, we will try to help everyone who came into trouble because of the above-mentioned PicRights, Higbee & Associates and other "money hunters" alike.
Subject of the dispute: Unauthorized use of Agence France-Presse's imagery
In the present case which we have documentation for, PicRights states that they are acting on behalf of Agence France-Presse and that a violation of their copyright was committed due to the public publication of certain photos, regardless of the fact that they were previously published on other portals as well. They cite screenshots from the website as "proof of use". The compensation they are seeking is enormously high and certainly by far exceeds the value of the photographs allegedly being the subject of dispute. They demand that the money be paid to them immediately, unconditionally and without discussion. If they say that the photos are theirs, there isn't anything to discuss, is there? Admittedly, they also leave the possibility to prove them wrong. They, however, don't want to argue with you, their goal is to charge you as much money as possible even if it involves poaching or clutching at straws.
This type of behavior is nothing new and is often used by influential, "major" companies (or those who want to present themselves as such) when representing their interests to let you know you don't mess around with them.
Generally speaking, it is no coincidence that lawyers from California or New York were chosen to act on behalf of third-party content owners, mostly because of the innate belief that a CA or NY-based business is considered authoritative over the rest of the United States and, hopefully, the rest of the world. Our experience tells us that thinking about the consequences of what they say or do is not one of their virtues (for more details, check this example, or this one too).
Let's split this issue by layers and go through each of them, one by one.
Valid Evidence vs. Incomplete Allegations
1. A screenshot or snapshot cannot be considered "proof of use". The reasons are obvious. Anyone can edit any part of a screenshot, change, crop or delete a part of it, and he can do it very easily. And then he can say that it is an "authentic display" of the content of someone's website and accuse him of anything, including pornography. The screenshot can only be an accompanying illustration coming up with some much stronger proof of ownership.
2. Where do these screenshots come from? As we were told for this particular case, the statistics from the site showed that the website was crawled by a sort of automated software with an IP address registered in Israel, which opened the web pages and took screenshots at fairly equal intervals. It is not illegal in itself, but the misuse of the collected information is. Namely, no one paid attention to the terms of use and purpose of the website clearly stated on each page. Specifically, it is by law granted a permission for reproducing public works which appear to be a constituting part of the current event presented to the public to the extent of being appropriate for the purpose of informing. This is not an isolated case and many of you will find it qualify under the fair use doctrine in the law of the United States, for example.
3. What kind of evidence would be considered solid enough for PicRights and others to be obliged to adduce? Could it be an excerpt from the register of intellectual property rights holders? No, and this is something we want to particularly emphasize: registration, in itself, is neither proof of ownership, nor of the right to use one's intellectual property (unless the property is yours, of course). There is an advantage of registering a copyright pertaining to the ability to recover statutory damages and attorney's fees in a successful action. However, the fact is that anyone can download content from online sources and register it under his own name, which does not make him the owner or copyright holder of that content. So, what is the real evidence of one's ownership and/or one's right to use a copyrighted digital work?
4. The party seeking damages must enclose the infringed photograph either in physical or digital form (we are focused on digital forms here) in full resolution and original format. Photographs provided in different dimensions, either larger or smaller, and in formats other than the original are not considered authentic works, but only derivates that, more or less, look alike the originals. For example, if the original photo is 1280x720, PNG, 32-bit depth and someone, who came into possession of a 640x360, PNG, 24-bit depth photo looking like the original, cannot attach that photo as proof of ownership. There is only one original, there are no two originals - only more or less look-alikes, which can be obtained in various legal and illegal ways. It begs the question of determining the authenticity of an image/photo. There is no definitive way, but there are two procedures that are very close to the definitive:
  • First, the alleged owner must provide evidence of when, how and where the photograph was taken, along with the date it was published as such. The question of its registration date is also to be raised. If it turns out that the application was submitted shortly before or after PicRights or Higbee & Associates contacted you, it is reasonable to believe that they first saw the picture on your website and then went on registering it, which automatically disables them to trigger the possibility to receive compensation from you.
  • The second is related to the presence of a digital watermark in the claimed images. The watermark data is physically embedded in the file forming an integral part of the whole. On the one hand, digital watermarks help us determine the authenticity of digital images being sold, bought, or reviewed. On the other hand, they provide copyright protection for intellectual property in a digital world and give users access to publicly available information about the copyrighted work. Watermarking is not mandatory, but if a watermark cannot be detected, there can be no trustworthy copyright protection or file recognition procedure.
Before anyone can sue you, there must be proof that you have been contacted properly and on time and that you have been duly informed of everything. That's why they so persistently insist that you reply to their emails and open the links therein contained, so they can record your activities and your exact location, among other things.
What you should do
We will not advise you to either reply to or ignore PicRights' letters (we will certainly not advise you to hire a lawyer for something you don't even know if it's legally grounded), but if anyone insists to respond, we advise you to ask them the following questions:
1. Do they have authentic originals of the claimed images/photos?
2. Do they have evidence of the origin of these photographs (who made them, when they were made, how they were made, on what occasions they were made etc.)?
3. Has the registration been made? If it has, when (exactly) has it been made and in which countries?
4. Do the photographs have built-in watermarks and what technique can be used to determine their existence?
Conclusion
Simply put, providing no valid evidence and demanding that the money be paid immediately and unconditionally can result in filing a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center. Filing a class action against the party caught in doctoring evidence and extorting money is also an option.
On the other hand, if valid evidence is provided and presented to the public by the party seeking compensation, it is clear that such an issue must be addressed properly and taken seriously.
If your experience is similar to this, please contact us or leave a comment.
* We are not attorneys and the above is not legal advice. If you seek legal advice, consult a competent, licensed attorney in your area.
* This content is in compliance with our Terms Of Use. We are a socially responsible company that aims to warn people of the inconvenience and damage that irresponsible companies and individuals can cause.
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Liz (2020/11/17 16:50:46)
Hi, I just received an email with a screenshot that said "this is from page 12 of your blog". I went to page 12 of my blog, and it doesn't match their screenshot. This was years ago, so I'm only assuming that the blogs have been removed. But I have no way of knowing if they didn't alter the screenshot, either. The picture in question is gone. Their "proof of use" was just a screenshot.
Admin (2020/11/17 19:05:22)
Hi Liz, definitely, a screenshot is no "proof of use". Any pixel in the image can be easily modified and cannot be considered proof as such. Some much more serious evidence must be provided to file any claim of copyright infringement.
Phil B. (2020/11/16 22:53:24)
Hi,I was intending to use a photo through which their only proof a link of the page. However, I had not put the page into action yet even, and there was no way to even access it through my site. The fact that they did with their web crawler software is impressive, but would not have been accessible otherwise. They have not done their duty in terms of "usage" which was not existent. Do they have to prove "use?"
Admin (2020/11/17 00:19:35)
Hi Phil, if I understand you correctly, the web page that would contain the claimed photo was never published, yet the photo was somehow located on your server. Was that photo stored in one of the directories or subdirectories available online?
Jesse (2020/11/07 01:30:48)
Yeah, I got the same issue. I took down the image. Haven’t responded. Got a letter from Higbee asking for triple more... $3,600. Gonna just keep ignoring. Never gonna pay that. Such a scam.
TSW (2020/10/12 09:31:44)
I also received an email from PicRights. The email had a screen from the non-profit religious association's website, which I help manage absolutely for free. I found the photo at wall.alphacoders.com, where there is no information about the author or copyright, no watermark (anyway, the photo is still there, only horizontally reflected). The photo was used as many times smaller than the original and served only as a background for textual information. After receiving the e-mail, I immediately deleted the photo. Should I do more? Write them back or contact DesignPics directly and try to get things done with them?
Admin (2020/10/12 14:30:10)
Hi TSW, PicRights is required to show valid proof of ownership which includes providing authentic originals of the claimed images (with the original image size), evidence of origin, registration date (followed by the list of countries the registration is applicable in) and preferably, a digital watermark assigned to the image. If PicRights didn't provide the above, there is really no need to write them back. If you know where the pic was taken from, sure you can contact the provider and inform them on the issue.
lorenzo (2020/10/05 17:57:39)
hello therei need help on this please email back at um***12 at live com
Admin (2020/10/05 21:49:12)
Hi Lorenzo, we'd be more of help if you could tell us more details about your issue.
kiki (2020/09/11 00:45:13)
hi, i've actually got an e-mail from PicRight.com demanding more than $1000 today. i was posting a small photo from Ruters after some retouch of clipping and changing colors in my blog.it really scared me. in this corona virus situation, i lost my job and i even worry about next month rent... it's impossible to pay such money to them right now.i removed the image and started making research about PicRight.com scam and came across this page. i also got to know that so many people are getting 'scammed' by them.i'm not sure what to do, but the information of this page was very helpful. thank you so much. i may ignore them for now and let's see what happens?
Admin (2020/09/11 23:52:34)
Hi, you are welcome, we are glad to help. Yes, that's true, their emails are composed in such a way as to scare people first. What did you receive as proof of use? Was it a screenshot only, or they provided you with some more evidence?
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