So you’ve received an “unauthorised use of image” letter

Accusations of copyright infringement are incredibly common. We should know—copyright infringement is one of the most common claims we see freelancers contend with. Unauthorised use of image warnings are on the rise because of image theft protection websites, which help artists recover compensation if their work is illegally distributed. Read this if you’ve recently received a warning letter.

In the past year or so, With Jack has seen an increase in panicked freelancers contacting us after receiving an unauthorised use of image letter from image theft protection sites.

There are lots of these websites around, but popular ones are Pixsy and Copytrack.

What is unauthorised use of a person’s image?

The creator of a photo owns the copyright. If you’re using third-party content it’s crucial to have permission from the copyright holder. This can be through a licensing agreement, but if using third-party content without the correct license then this is deemed unauthorised use.

It’s important to stay on the right side of copyright law because the unauthorised use of an image is illegal.

What happens if I use an image without permission?

Ultimately the penalty is the decision of the copyright holder, but since copyright infringement is illegal you could owe compensation. This compensation can be significantly more than what purchasing the original license would have cost.

Taking image theft protection websites like Pixsy and Copytrack into consideration, they could add fees on top of this.

How to deal with image theft protection sites

As an ex-photographer, I’ve been the frustrated copyright holder who’s left out of pocket from people illegally distributing my work. It’s disrespectful so I fully support photographers recovering costs where owed.

However, one thing to be careful of with image theft protection websites is that they don’t always get it right. They can utilise image search technology which isn’t 100% reliable. If you aren’t on the ball you may end up paying compensation for an image you’ve legally used.

Whilst the warning email you’ll receive is scary—and may even have you questioning yourself—with a little bit of due diligence you may be able to prove you’ve sourced the image lawfully.

One of our customers who falls into this category gave us some good advice. They suggested not responding to the letter straight away. Instead give yourself time to research and think it through rationally.

This customer knew they had a good understanding of copyright law and therefore it was unlikely they obtained the image illegally. By doing a bit of research they were able to provide proof of licensing and the image theft protection site closed the case against them.

On the flip side we’ve had customers unable to provide proof they had licensed the image. Remember, copyright infringement is illegal so it can be difficult to challenge a licensing fee if no proof is provided.

Where the claim was accepted as valid and with the help of the insurer, the compensation has been negotiated and the artist has compromised on a lower fee.

If you receive an unauthorised use of image letter from a website like Pixsy or Copytrack:

  • Contact us if you’re a With Jack customer. Unintentional copyright infringement is covered under your professional indemnity policy, so it’s important we notify the insurer and let them assist
  • If you have legal expenses insurance you can use the helpline to speak to a legal expert that’s proficient in copyright law. Understanding copyright law can better equip you to handle the situation
  • Don’t panic. A common theme we’ve heard from customers who receive these letters is that they begin to doubt themselves. Listen to our customer who successfully closed their case. Don’t respond straight away. Take time to research

My client has received a warning letter, but it was me who sourced the image

To add a layer of complexity to these accusations of copyright infringement, sometimes it’s the freelancer’s job to source images on behalf of clients. What if an unauthorised use of image letter is sent to your client, but you were responsible for providing the content?

This happened to one of our customers. Their advice was to be transparent with your client and equip them with everything they need to fight the case.

“I told mine exactly what the image supplier had said and shared everything I found out. The better equipped your client is to deal with the case, the more likely it is to be resolved.”

From an insurance perspective, your policy won’t be triggered because nobody is looking to recover compensation from you. If your client has received a letter addressed to them, it’s important they notify their own insurer.

It’s important not to invite a request for compensation against yourself because this can invalidate your insurance. Instead keep the focus on helping your client challenge the claim, assuming you have sourced the image lawfully.

Prevention is better

Receiving a letter like this is scary for a freelancer—ideally we’d avoid the stress of this situation in the first place. This is where understanding copyright law and having an audit trail helps.

Understanding copyright law is beyond the scope of this blog post, but Skillshare have courses on the subject including this one geared towards creatives.

Audit trails are incredibly important when it comes to defending yourself. All we mean by having an audit trail is keeping a record of where you sourced an image from, and the licensing agreement if applicable.

Everyone has different methods for record keeping, but a spreadsheet with the URL of where the image is published, link to where the image was sourced from and the licensing agreement makes it easy to provide proof if Copytrack or Pixsy come knocking.

Going back to our copyright-savvy customer we spoke about earlier, they knew at the time of sourcing the image they were exclusively using Canva for third-party content. This made it easy to provide proof of lawful use since Canva have a content license agreement and the freelancer had proof of payment for their subscription.

Wrapping up

How you respond to an accusation of copyright infringement depends on whether you’ve obtained the image legally or not. If you’ve put a foot wrong then it’s best to work with the copyright holder to put things right, but your insurance may be able to assist.

Remember there’s a possibility you’ve received a warning letter in error—as several of our customers have. You’ll need to think about what websites you were using at the time you sourced the image and dig out proof of purchase or forward the licensing agreement from the image supplier. Make sure you have records of everything to avoid future stresses!

  • Be a master of record keeping and have an audit trail
  • Use the legal advice helpline to speak to someone proficient in copyright law
  • Notify us if you receive a warning letter requesting compensation
  • Read our blog post, What happens next when you’re accused of copyright infringement
  • Ensure you’re working within the terms and conditions of your image supplier (excellent advice from our customer who was on the receiving end of an incorrect warning letter)

We asked ourselves one important question…

What do we want out of an insurance provider?

With Jack is the answer