In recent years, the stock photo industry has sent out thousands of boiler plate demand letters asking Internet users to pay for photos that appear on blogs and other websites. In many cases, the industry appears to be leveraging the threat of litigation to extract settlements well beyond any actual harm. At other times, these demand letters have carelessly targeted licensed uses and fair uses. Today EFF is helping a website owner respond to an improper attack on fair use by License Compliance Services, Inc. (LCS).

Our client, Robert Knox, runs a website dedicated to humanist causes. His site includes links to a variety of educational resources and non-profit organizations. The website also collates news items highlighting advancements in global health and education. Knox publishes a list of headlines with a link to the original article, a few words of comment, and a thumbnail image. The site collects these links for the purpose of education and commentary. Interested readers must visit the original for the full story and picture.

LCS has demanded that Knox pay for a thumbnail image of a kidney that accompanied a link to a BBC article (as seen below). When Knox explained that his site had made a fair use of the image, LCS replied by misstating the relevant legal standard. It seems that LCS’s demand is part of a mass letter campaign conducted with very little regard for the law. Our reply explains why Knox’s use was protected by fair use. We hope that LCS withdraws its baseless demand against our client.

LCS already has a reputation for careless demands. Earlier this year, it demanded that 2600: The Hacker Quarterly pay for the use of an ink splotch that had appeared on the cover of that magazine. As it turned out, 2600 had sourced the splotch from the work of a Finnish artist who had licensed the work freely for commercial and non-commercial use. LCS had no right to the original work at all. Having been caught making an entirely bogus demand, LCS did not even apologize.

Ultimately, we need fundamental reform to stop the copyright trolling epidemic. U.S. copyright law provides statutory damages of up to $150,000 per work and does not require any showing of harm. These excessive penalties encourage trolling and abuse. Only reform of statutory damages can bring fairness to the copyright system. Until then, we can expect to see more careless and abusive demands from organizations like License Compliance Services.

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