What is a Copyright Troll?

A copyright troll is an entity that is hired by photographers and other copyright holders to look for and send copyright infringement notices to web publishers who publish their client photos (and other media).  The notices usually include a demand for retroactive license fees.

In some cases, copyright trolls are law firms but some are not law firms and instead merely agents who enforce claims with outside counsel.

Copyright trolls typically split the fees obtained with the copyright holders.  This is an attractive arrangement for copyright holders because they don’t have to pay hefty retainer fees upfront.  Instead, the copyright trolls collect their fees on the backend when they successfully obtain infringement fees from publishers.

How do copyright trolls find potentially infringing media?

They use software that scours the web looking for matches of their clients’ media.  The use of software makes this a viable model because little labor or money goes into locating clients’ media.

The problem with the automated approach is that infringement notices go out to publishers who do have a license to use the media.  In this instance, the publisher who has a license is forced to prove they have a license which can be a lot of work if a troll claims for many images.

What can publishers do who receive a claim for fees from a copyright troll?

The best course of action is to consult a copyright attorney.  There are many defenses and other methods to combat claims put forth by copyright trolls (including negotiating the amount down).  Seriously, consult an attorney.

In the event the publisher has a license, while it’s a hassle doing so, reply to the demand from the troll and set out proof of the licenses.

Why are copyright trolls reviled with such an unpleasant name?

The “troll” sticks because of the excessive fees demanded for use of infringing media.  These excessive fees are usually not based on market value, but instead on the fact that trolls know that the cost to fight these claims are so high (i.e. hiring attorneys and going to court).  Consequently, publishers will often simply pay the claim to avoid spending a small fortune to fight them.

They are also reviled because they frequently make claims against innocent publishers.  They put the onus on publishers to prove possession of a license which puts a lot of work on publishers for doing nothing wrong.  Put another way, copyright trolls conduct their business with carpet bombs instead of a scalpel.  They simply blast out notices with no effort in determining whether a recipient publisher does have a license.

Learn more: Read about my encounter with a copyright troll who claimed $44,000 in infringement fees.

Also, there are many similar stories published online about the practices of copyright trolls (use our mutual friend Google for plenty of additional reading).

Is there a place for copyright trolls?

While I’ve had two unpleasant encounters with copyright trolls, they do serve a purpose.  I’m not totally biased.  The fact is copyright holders do have their work stolen all the time and it’s an impossible task to deal with it.  I sell digitial courses that have been resold by rogue operators for years.  They sell them for a fraction of the cost which hurts my bottom line.

For example, paparazzi photographers put a lot of time and effort into getting celebrity photos.  Some of these licenses sell for huge sums of money.  When they are used without a license, it costs these photographers a great deal of money and hurts their business.  Copyright laws are designed to protect their work (whether you agree or disagree with copyright law is another matter).  Accordingly, in order to protect their business, they hire copyright trolls to protect their work and business.

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