License Compliance Services / Getty Images Scam

"The internet yields an abundance of images nowadays. Some are free to use, some are not and require the acquisition of a licence. Unless images are clearly watermarked or come specifically from a website making it clear that this is the case, it can be difficult for people to differentiate and they can fall prey to predatory firms who are currently exploiting the grey areas of uncertainty in the current situation."

Who Are These People? Getty Images and more recently a company called License Compliance Services, patrol the internet looking for stock images that they think they can accuse people of using without a copyright license. When they find a potential image they send intimidating emails threatening court action to the website displaying the image, demanding its removal and extortionate amounts of money for its use. Anything from £450 to £900 plus per image. They cause considerable stress and misery to the people they target, who are usually unwitting individuals acting completely innocently, or people who may have even been tricked into using the image.

Fear Tactics And Extortion! In the first email they will include a screenshot image of your website (which they will take and use without your permission, thereby breaking their own rules) which displays the image in question along with your own website banner. This they forward supposedly as proof that you have potentially used an image without permission. They will ask for the removal of the image from the website in question and / or proof of license. Most people targeted do this straight away realising they may have made a mistake. However, these companies are not content simply with protecting the rights of the copyright owner, as they purport, they want to use the opportunity to try and extort substantial and unreasonable amounts of money out of people and they are using fear and other morally questionable tactics in order to do so.

Misleading And Fraudulent! They rely on the recipients of their communications cooperating with their request out of fear of litigation. However, there is no legal requirement to do so and some of what they are doing is without doubt misleading and even fraudulent. Any such ruling could only be decided by a court and it is highly unlikely that in most of the instances they target would be liable with any such ruling. License Compliance Services and Getty Images are US based companies both registered in the UK from the same London based address at 101 Bayham Street, London, NW1 0AG. Further details of the companies and their directors can be found at Companies House, License Compliance Services Limited and Getty Images (UK) Limited.

Predatory Extortion! Many of the images in question are already in the public domain in one form or another and can be sourced from websites other than the ones represented by License Compliance Services or Getty Images. In the absence of any clear indicator or copyright notice, it often makes it very difficult for people to determine the provenance or circumstances surrounding a particular image and consequently it can be easy for people to fall potential victim to this scam. License Compliance Services and Getty Images mercenarily and cold-heartedly exploit this with their predatory extortion tactics. Similar themed images to those that people may be targeted for using by LCS can often be sourced completely free or bought for as little as 63p. The amounts therefore being demanded by Getty Images and License Compliance Services are extortionate and immoral.

Intimidated! There is also no guarantee that the images they refer to are used without permission and LCS put the onus on the recipient of their intimidating emails to produce proof of purchase or a valid license for using the image, which you do not have to do because the onus is on them to prove that you haven't. Removing the image is not an admission of guilt. Many people are intimidated into handing over the substantial amounts demanded by these scumbags. Others, who may not have that kind of money to begin with, undergo a very stressful time as a result worrying about the threat and escalation of potential legal proceedings.

People Tricked! There is circumstantial evidence that appears to indicate that these companies, or their associates, could even be leaking certain stock images into the public domain via the back door, causing people to be tricked into using them thinking they are free. LCS or GI then pounce using intimidation tactics and threats of legal action. Certainly the images in question are not watermarked or sourced from the websites mentioned in the LCS or Getty Images communications. They have very obviously come from elsewhere on the web and have had watermarks removed, presumably originally by the library they came from, giving unwitting people the impression that they are ok to use.

Free Is Not Free! Some of these stock companies advertise many images on their websites as royalty free and people often therefore think they can use them for free. However, royalty free does not actually mean free! Royalty free simply means that you must pay an initial license fee and you may then repeatedly use the image many times without paying further additional fees. Getty Images and subsequently License Compliance Services rely on unsuspecting members of the public being taken in by this. They then send their intimidating emails asking for extortionate amounts in payment for using the image. Generally all photo commercially available photo stock images are watermarked clearly right across the centre of the image. If the image you are being pursued about doesn't have this watermark, there is no indication that it is being used unofficially and that it is not free. This is also part of the scam LCS and Getty Images rely on.

Exploiting And Extorting! If images are not clearly marked as copyrighted and protected imagery, that is they are not properly watermarked or there is no copyright symbol of any sort accompanying them, there is no way for members of the public to know that they are not free to use and in the public domain. Getty Images and subsequently now License Compliance Services are exploiting this in an attempt to extort significant and criminal sums of money out of unsuspecting and gullible people. However, although they appear to threaten legal action, it is only the copyright owner (usually the original artist) that has the right to take legal action. The law is unlikely to be interested unless you have made a profit from the use of such an image or damage has been done to the copyright owner.

More Information...

  • The email communications they send out are speculative attempts to frighten you and get you to pay them money. They are not legal documents and are not supported by any legal requirement, they are simply requests to try and get you to comply with the scam.
  • A website cannot be taken to court, only a representative of that website. If there is no named representative no one can be taken to court. Therefore do not respond to any communications with them. Do not tell them who you are and do not enter into any sort of agreement with them. You do not have to agree to their terms and conditions. The library, or the license compliance department representing that library, is not entitled to take you to court and has no power to do so. Any intimation that they can is misleading and fraudulent.
  • The onus is on them to prove you do not have permission to use the image, not the other way around as they would have you believe. The actual copyright holder (usually the original artist) is the only one who is entitled to take legal action against the use of his material. If there has been no commercial gain or damage done to the copyright holder from the use of the material it is highly unlikely that it would ever go to court.

Link to more info on Getty Images Scams

Link to Citizen's Advice Bureau Article

Example of emails sent to this website from License Compliance Services