Thanks to a company called PicRights, International, I discovered I had an image problem.

I didn’t go looking for PicRights, International – they came looking for me. PicRights, you see, “provides licensing compliance services to third-party content owners.” Translation: PicRights, by means of internet-trolling bots, unearths their clients’ images that show up in internet content. PicRights tracks down the user and inquires if they have obtained permission to use the image (PicRights knows that they likely haven’t). No? Well then, PicRights requests that the image be taken down. But that’s not all. They then demand that you promptly fork over a fee for the use of the image.

When I got my email inquiry from PicRights, my initial reaction was that it was a scam. But I quickly learned from several sources that they’re for real. The sympathetic PicRights “Compliance Officer” with whom I spoke pointed out that they apply copyright law on behalf of their clients to protect their images from unauthorized use. Little did I know that using a photo of Jeff Bezos at a conference in Australia three years ago put a digital target on my back.

It turns out that I and countless other hapless internet users are in technical violation of copyright laws. What PicRights is doing is perfectly legal, and if they find you out, they will call you to account. PicRights turns a deaf ear to sincere apologies or I-had-no-idea explanations. The law is on their side. No second chances. Take the picture down and pay up. Now.

OK, my bad, but jeez! Am I not a very small fish in the pond? I had a discussion with a lawyer friend who has dealt with PicRights cases. If you ignore them, or tell them to pound sand, you risk having your case passed along to a very aggressive law firm that’s ready to ratchet up the pressure with scary legal threats. My Compliance Officer graciously offered a 20% discount on my transgression if I paid promptly.

Though they present themselves as carrying out a noble mission, PicRights is a for-profit business. Stories like mine abound on the internet. It seems to me that they operate very much like debt-collection agencies: find the debtor, coerce payment of the debt, and keep a percentage of the collection. The difference with PicRights is that for the most part, the creditors – the legal owners of the images – don’t know, or perhaps don’t even care, that their image has been innocently purloined by near-invisible bloggers like me. But if image owners can hire PicRights to scrape up some revenue that they wouldn’t take the trouble to find themselves, why not release the Kraken?

You may be getting the impression that I view PicRights’s business model as legal but predatory. You would be right. But I’m sure some of their clients have significant copyright issues. And anyway, PicRights can mount a reasonable defense. To wit: The law is the law. Intellectual property such as copyrighted images are entitled to protection. News agencies don’t have the resources to search for unauthorized use. Small-time violators are just as culpable as big-time violators.

That said, our legal system permits exceptions for “de minimis” (trifling) use, or “fair use” (limited use of copyrighted material without having to first acquire permission). I’m sure that the courts have been asked for case-by-case interpretations of the law. It’s a “spirit vs letter of the law” issue. As a practical matter, it would not be cost-effective for someone like me to hire a lawyer to take on PicRights and their attack-dog law firm. PicRights knows that, which makes it worthwhile for them to squeeze people like me for our discounted pounds of flesh.

I concluded that my best option was to cut my losses and move on. Lesson learned. But I would like PicRights to know that the artist has granted me permission to use the image that graces this blog.