Trolling Photography Lawyers May Be Coming After You!

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Many in South Carolina and the nation are facing expensive lawsuits for using unknown copyrighted pictures! Most of us have contracted professional photographers for weddings, receptions, business events, and advertising activities. We share photos with friends, relatives, the public, and clients on Facebook, websites, and marketing materials. While you may pay thousands of dollars for their services, photographers own the images unless you agree to purchase them with “unlimited use.” Some professionals may, without your knowledge, register their works with the US Copyright Office. Ethical photographers warn through written agreements to only purchase or license the rights from them. Organizations’ leaders and families don’t realize the dangers lurking from copyright violations!

For example, a business colleague was blindsided by a lawsuit summons for $70,000 by North Carolina lawyers representing a photographer for her unauthorized use of his photos. Five years earlier, upon closing her business, she donated a website to a non-profit charity. However, there were two, unknown copyrighted images she purchased “20 years ago!” imbedded on the website. Likewise, two of our companies were also sued when staff unknowingly utilized pictures from the public Internet without any copyright/ownership markings.

As researchers, authors, and artists, many of us have worked hard for years to share our experiences, knowledge, and works with others that warrant protection. However, there are greedy photographers and law firms called  “ambulance chasers” who ruthlessly seek to extract money from us. While most attorneys (and photographers) are professionals who adhere to legal and ethical standards, research refers to the unethical as “trolling lawyers” who have sold their souls for money. In fact, during depositions, a photographer, who was also an attorney, admitted taking hundreds of photographs and registered them with the copyright office. He intentionally dumped them without copyright or ownership markings into the public Internet domain to set the bait to lure unsuspecting victims into using them—then sued everyone. In an affidavit, he reported making $400,000 annually from “easy prey!”

To defend yourself against these evil attacks, note the following:

Step 1: Unethical photographers, who have registered their work with the US Copyright Office, contract with  “trolling law firms.” The parties agree to share the profits of any legal action that the attorney extracts from the innocent through threatening letters or lawsuits. It’s sad but all of the following is legal because of the copyright laws!

Step 2: Trolling lawyers use highly sophisticated software to search the Internet for pictures that match images photographers have registered with the copyright office. Once photos are identified, the firm and photographer assess if potential violations have been licensed or purchased.

Step 3: If images are suspect, “demand letters” will be sent to the organizational leaders or individuals notifying them that they and/or third parties are using unauthorized photographs, and huge payments are required. When our businesses were sued, initial notices were found in SPAM e-mail. The trollers require the names of your insurance companies since they know insurers will settle and score quick money strikes! The letter warns recipients that if they don’t respond by certain dates, further legal action will be implemented. Initially explore communications to detect fraudsters, but if the letters appear legitimate, treat them as urgent.

Step 4: If you don’t, lawsuits will be filed and your attorney must communicate in thirty days. The trolling law firm will continue to threaten you to “Pay up!” even if you didn’t intentionally and knowingly use the photographs and have removed the images. Forgiveness and being reasonable or sensible are not their endgame! Most parties being attacked settle out of court with the hoodlums.

In our friend’s case, she felt that the lawsuit was frivolous and vigorously fought the adverse threats. Yet, this trolling law firm was unwilling to lower their unreasonable demands and in fact, sued the non-profit too! This led to tremendous amounts of wasted time, stress, and meetings over a year between lawyers, insurance agents, litigators, and clients. The frustrating, sad result was the victim paid $25,000 in legal fees to her copyright attorney and the insurance company settled for $20,000 to the photographer for the bogus claims.

How can individuals, non-profits, or businesses reduce threats? Scott Mosely with Irmo Insurance recommends “families purchase $1 million liability add-on to their home/auto policy which costs about $150 annually. It covers a wide range of threats since you can be sued for anything!” There were 100 million lawsuits filed in federal courts in 2023! Businesses and non-profits should buy additional “Cyber Insurance” to address intellectual property breaches. This includes protections for online presence, such as websites, social media, and marketing materials. This coverage will address infringements of the American Disabilities Act, HIPAA privacy laws, copyrights, photos, and content. Umbrella business and other liability coverage, while needed, may not address all intellectual property libelous issues. Ensure staff and contractors, like web designers, avoid using Internet photographs without written permission. Take your own snapshots or secure low-cost stock photos from reputable companies like Explore purchasing photos from photographers with documentation!

Attorney Thomas Moses with Southeast IP Group ( who has defended hundreds of clients against copyright and trademark threats recommends: “Engage with lawyers who are well-versed in copyright and trademark laws since threatening law firms have advanced experience and knowledge in copyright lawsuits. Avoid responding to threats yourself. It’s best to analyze and reduce legal threats before they escalate!” If there’s evidence photos are copyrighted, remove them immediately and contact your insurance company to determine coverage.

There’s an old saying, “Hope for the best and plan for the worse!” Thieves are very crafty “making a quick buck.” You might be next!

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