10.12.20 How Two Spam Emails Cost Me $650 (or) When PicRights Enters Your Life

I just bought something for $650!

Three photos, as it turns out. Three digital photos.

And I nearly lost out on the opportunity to do so, because the letters about those photos showed up in my spam folder first, and it was only by chance I happened to check and discover that … well, crap.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

What happened to me is done — but here’s how you can hopefully prevent it from happening to you. Settle in.

First off, let’s start out with this truth:

Just because an image is on the Internet doesn’t mean you can lift it for use on your personal blog.

Now, when you read that sentence you probably had one of a couple possible reactions:

  1. Really? Huh. Who knew?
  2. Duh: I know that, I’d never do that.
  3. Yeah, I know that, but nobody pays attention to me so I don’t care.
  4. My blog? Nobody blogs any more, old timer.
  5. Yeah, I know that, but they’ll just send me a takedown notice if they’re annoyed and I’ll handle it.

To be honest, I’ve been a No. 5 for a while there. For the most part, I try to use photos I’ve taken, but in recent years as I’ve addressed more topical topics than how to review your friend’s book or the latest celebrity I interviewed, I’ve been a bit more lax. I Google Image-searched, I grabbed, I used.

And here is why you don’t do that thing: Because someone is checking up on you, and that company is called PicRights.

I was cleaning out an email folder I don’t use much, and happened to notice a few pieces of spam that had drifted in. Since sometimes there are gems among the junk, I eyeballed the emails in the spam folder and uncovered this (certain details have been obliterated, and it’s only part of the email):

(I actually received two emails, one referring to two photos owned by Reuters, one referring to a photo owned by AP. I checked, and yes, those photos were on my website.) Now, on the one hand, this whispers scammy scam scam at first. But with a brief amount of Googling, I learned that in fact this is a real company with a real mission: To get you to pay for the images you have used, but didn’t pay for, from companies like Reuters and the Associated Press. My friendly IP lawyer indicated that I had about three choices:

  1. Ignore the email and hope for the best
  2. Respond and negotiate the prices down
  3. Respond and ask them to share the registration information for the photos, to ensure they have standing to even ask you to pay them.

I went ahead and did No. 3.

Some time ago, I’d read about companies/individuals who harass people over debts, and one way to get most of them off your back is to demand that they show standing to even ask for the money you allegedly owe. If they don’t have standing — like, I can’t claim I have standing to make you pay your Visa card — they can’t get you to pony up. So asking for registration information sounded like a good start/delay tactic.

That’s how I met Magda, the patient and friendly lady on the other end of the phone who politely explained that AP and Reuters take so many photos they can’t always get them registered right away, if at all. But all of that information would of course be available if this case goes to court. Having seen on the Internet that in fact there is a law firm PicRights works with and with whom they will escalate (friendly IP lawyer scoffed a bit at the law firm, but did say it was a real firm) and if I want to go that direction, I was welcome to. But in that case, things could get more expensive.

In the meantime, I did more digging on PicRights. It appears they are an independent company that finds trouble out there, and makes you pay for it. That is to say that AP and Reuters didn’t necessarily hire them to root out digital imagery co-opting at the most micro of levels, but that AP and Reuters are happy to take their cut of the loot PicRights comes up with. Which is, in the end, approximately double what the original photo would have cost you to license on your own. In any case, they will escalate.

And the fact is, I had used the images. I hadn’t paid for them. I got it. I was just trying not to get gouged on the way out the door. So, I caved.

But if you note: this was not a takedown notice.

This wasn’t a friendly, “Hey, you might not have realized, but you didn’t pay us for the rights to use our pictures.”

It was, in essence, a bill. A bill which came, for the use of three photos on a blog that I can’t imagine more than a handful of people read, to around $1000. Not chump change at all. Yeah, they wanted $1K for three photos on a website that maybe fewer than 50 people read at any given time.

So I called Magda back and said I’d pay $50 for each photo. She didn’t actually laugh, but she didn’t have to.

In the end, they agreed on a 35% discount on each photo, which based on other things I see around the internet, is fairly standard. And since they started out (wisely) poking you with very sharp sticks, suddenly being told that you will only be beaten lightly with those sharp sticks feels like a relief.

I am in a fortunate position: While I am not happy to send $650 out into the ether, I’m not in a financial position where it’s going to leave a mark. I can do this thing. I know many can’t.

And for that reason, I’m here to send up a warning flag to everyone out there that hasn’t heard from PicRights: If you have someone else’s photos on your site, particularly if they’re with big companies like AP or Reuters, time to take them down. Or license them. But don’t wait to get called out.

Because even though they might come in the guise of polite women in Canada named Magda, they are sharks. And they will sink their teeth in.



  1. AB on 10/29/20 at 7:06 pm

    “Since publishing this originally, this link was sent to me….”
    What link? And how would the registratiion gambit work? (I have gotten a similar shakedown notice and I have directly gone to Reuters. Havent heard back from them. Im dammned if I am going to pay

    • Randee Dawn on 10/29/20 at 7:29 pm

      I think you have to be willing to go to court with it, and risk paying more. You could press the registration issue and see where it takes you, but you’ll need nerves stronger than mine.

      In retrospect maybe I should have pushed back more, because I really question the standing they have to make these claims. But I also didn’t want to get bogged down in legal fees or court filings. Good luck, though!

  2. AB on 10/30/20 at 8:38 pm

    Did you get a bona fide release for what you paid them? And how did you establish they had the authority to give you the release?

    • Randee Dawn on 11/01/20 at 3:21 pm

      Letters on AP/Reuters letterhead instructed me that a claim from PicRights was valid, and then there were official settlement releases.

  3. AB on 11/02/20 at 3:14 pm

    They send me putative release (before I sent them any $s) which looked *extremely* dodgy. Anyway Ive gone high up the Reuter’s chain and will see what they directly say.
    Im pretty convinced is a scam and they are domiciled in Canada to avoid RICO prosecutions.

  4. AB on 11/03/20 at 3:17 pm

    turns out they are legit, sadly…so at least you weren’t entirely scammed.