PicRights Ltd: the shady company hounding journalists over historic cases of copyright infringement

What they do isn’t illegal, but it is unscrupulous

If you are a digital journalist or blogger, you will know how important it is to ensure your images are copyright-free. Copyright is the exclusive and legally-protected right to reproduce, adapt, use, distribute and display an original work of authorship, such as a photograph. In other words, you can’t just nab any old photo from Google Images or a random website, because it legally belongs to the person who took the photo and you can’t use it without their permission.

However, until the arrival of PicRights Ltd, disputes could usually be resolved easily between the photographer and the journalist without having to resort to court, and you would never be faced with a huge fee. Usually, the producer of the image would just ask for a credit and no money would be exchanged.

Who are PicRights Ltd?

Given the number of complaints I have heard from journalists about how annoying this company are, I decided to do try my hand at investigative journalism and dig a bit deeper into their activities.

The company was incorporated in the US in 2016 and they set up their UK branch two years later, which is headquartered in London. They have emerged as by far the most active enforcer of copyright for photos in this country and beyond.

Their proclaimed objective is “to resolve copyright infringements quickly and fairly, without resorting to the courts.” But often, it is PicRights who creates the dispute themselves — and of course, they turn a tidy profit from this process of ‘resolution.’

They dish out copyright infringement notices to digital content creators, along with hefty fees of hundreds of pounds. Their ‘compliance agents’ communicate with individuals and organisations who have received one of these notices to ensure they pay up. They are very persistent, sending incessant letters and emails warning they will take legal action unless you get in contact to ‘resolve’ the infringement. They cannot sue you themselves but they do refer claims to law firms. For example, in the US, Higbee and Associates is the main step-up for claims that PicRights do not settle and Burness Paull in the UK.

The director of the company is a woman called Anne-Sophie Quilliet, listed on ‘LinkedIn as the Copyright Compliance Director at PicRights Europe GmbH.’ There is no evidence on the Internet of anyone else who is involved in running the company. Someone called Alfred Hoefinger commented on a post in a forum, claiming to the CEO of PicRights, but there is no trace of his existence on the web. Sounds shady, huh?

Do PicRights operate on the copyright owner’s behalf?

Sometimes, however, the individual or company who owns the copyright is not even involved. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence online to suggest this.

I rang up PicRights numerous times to investigate what proportion of their cases are client-based and what proportion are instigated by PicRights themselves, as well as what cut they take from the fees they charge and how much goes to the owner of the image concerned. However, it was impossible to get through to anyone. The phone just rings off, regardless of the time of day. This information is also not on their website, not even in their Terms of Use. What sort of legitimate company never picks up their phone?

PicRights exists as a profitable company, and that is its purpose — not to nobly protect the rights of artists and photographers. Sure, they have represented some big names, but the smaller-scale work they do is more sketchy, and their primary motive for incessantly hounding journalists and other online content creators is obviously to make money for themselves.

Is PicRights a scam?

However, just because it’s not an illegal scam, that doesn’t mean what they are doing is right.

Hounding people for money and threatening to take them to court if they don’t pay up is unscrupulous, especially when they instigate the case themselves, not on behalf of the copyright-owner.

There have also been a number of complaints on forums from people who claim to have received demand letters for images that they properly licensed or for images that did not actually match the image they used on their website, suggesting that their procedures are sometimes sloppy.

Moreover, sometimes images which were previously royalty-free end up having a copyright slapped on them. A PR company might provide an image and then it later transpires that it is a licensed photo and you don’t have permission to use it — but PicRights have already sent you a string of letters, and it is too late.

Is that fair on the journalist — who is earning peanuts anyway — to have to pay a £400 fee to a third party for an image they didn’t even realise was copyrighted?

What do I do if I get a letter from PicRights?

However, anecdotal evidence from forums and word of mouth suggests that if you just ignore the letters and emails PicRights sends, there will be no repercussions. They eventually give up, and it seems that people often pay up only to stop being hounded. Some forums also suggest that you can bargain with them and offer a smaller payment than what they request.

What does this suggest about the legitimacy of their activities? If they let cases go and don’t take them to court, does this suggest they don’t have the grounds to take legal action anyway? Are they just trying to scare people into paying up?

Where can I get copyright-free images?

PicRights’ lucrative activities are unsavoury, but it is still respectful to artists and photographers to avoid using copyrighted images, especially given there are alternatives.

Historian at Cambridge, budding journalist, travel-lover. Creative, curious and compassionate. Interested in philosophy, politics, psychology, writing and more!

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