The Rise of Copyright Infringement Claims: the Truth Behind Cease and Desist Letters

Nonprofits and businesses across the United States have been increasingly inundated with cease and desist letters from entities like PicRights, ImageRights, CopyTrack, CopyPants, and Pixsy; alleging copyright infringement and demanding payment for licensing fees. While these companies are legitimate, it is important to recognize that they are not law firms, and their practices may not always be truthful.

Using automated bots to scan the internet for image matches, companies like PicRights often resort to sending intimidating automated emails to coerce individuals into paying without questioning the validity of their claim. However, numerous cases have emerged where their claims are false or inaccurate. In some instances, these companies do not even represent the true owner of the disputed photograph and lack the ability to pursue legal action. Moreover, there have been cases where businesses have obtained proper licensing or fall within the boundaries of the Fair Use Exemption when using the disputed photo.

If your organization has received a letter of this nature, don’t panic.

To help you navigate this situation, we have compiled a list of helpful resources and articles that explain how these predatory companies operate and provide guidance on steps you can take to address the issue effectively.

In the News and Press Releases: The Leading Culprit for Copyright Infringement Claims Against Nonprofits

For nonprofits, one of the most frequent copyright infringement claims arises from the usage of photos from news articles that feature their organization. It is common practice for nonprofits to share these articles and have dedicated sections on their websites, such as ‘In the News’ or ‘Press’. Unfortunately, these news sections have become a primary target for copyright infringement claims.

Surprisingly, even if the articles are shared through external links that redirect to the original publication’s website, the publications may still seek compensation for the use of their photos.

However, nonprofits may still be within their right to use these photos as they fulfill the 4 factors that US courts use to determine Fair Use Exemption.

If you have already received a Cease and Desist Letter from a company seeking compensation, here are some steps you can take to mitigate the damage.

  1. Do not engage, communicate, admit, deny, pay, or sign anything. Speak with a lawyer first and let them handle the claim.
  2. Hire a lawyer specializing in Copyright Law. If your lawyer determines that you have a strong case for a Fair Use Defense based on the gathered information, it is advisable to let them handle all further communication with the claimant on your behalf. Although hiring a lawyer may involve some expenses, it could potentially be more cost-effective than paying the licensing fees being demanded.
  3. Verify that the Claim is Legitimate. Ask the company making the claim for their Copyright Registration Certificate. (Again in many cases these companies do not represent the owner of the photo in question and do not own or have a Copyright Registration Certificate to back up their claim.)
  4. Remove the photo in question from your website. This will not stop them from seeking payment, but it will stop them from seeking further compensation. You must delete the image from your server altogether. Simply taking it down from the front-end of your site is not enough.
  5. Gather the following information about the photo in question:
    • Where you found the image
    • The first date it appeared on your website, blog, or social media.
    • The last date it appeared on your website, blog, or social media
    • The context in which it appeared on your website, blog, or social media
    • If it is still available on your website, blog, or social media.
    • If the image is displayed via an RSS feed or an embedded feed of any kind.
  6. Ask for a Nonprofit Discount. If the claim is legitimate and your organization is obligated to pay compensation, as a nonprofit, you have the option to request a reduction in the licensing fee. To do so, you will need to provide the compensation officer assigned to your case with IRS documentation proving your nonprofit status. By demonstrating your nonprofit status, you can highlight the positive impact your organization makes in the community and emphasize the financial limitations faced by nonprofits. This approach may lead to a more favorable outcome and potentially reduce the financial burden on your organization.

Here are some steps your organization can take to avoid potential fines or lawsuits from publications for copyright infringement in the future:

  1. When sharing an article about your nonprofit, do not copy and paste the article into your own blog article, share it as an external link.
  2. Ask for permission to use their photo. Make sure it is in writing, so you have proof if you ever receive a letter or fine. If you receive their permission, make sure to also add a caption under the photo, attributing the newspaper and photographer in question.
  3. If a newspapers wants to feature your nonprofit in an article, request that they only use photos that your organization has approved. This allows you to decline the use of any photos you don’t own or haven’t authorized.
  4. Create a comprehensive press packet that includes approved photos owned by your organization. This provides you with control over the images used and the opportunity to charge your own licensing fee for their usage.
  5. Instead of using the photo from the article, use a photo that your nonprofit owns, when sharing an external link to an article. To make your photos more accessible for your employees open an account on Flickr
  6. Use a royalty free photo from a different source such as
  7. Purchase a photo from a venerable resource such as iStock or PhotoDune
  8. Don’t use any photo at all.
  9. Educate your employees about copyright infringement. Most nonprofits have multiple people adding articles to your blog or in the news sections. Make sure that everyone with access to making changes to your website, understands the legal repercussions of sharing copyright protected images on your website. They are not personally liable, but the more money a nonprofit has to pay out in penalties, the less money you have to further your cause.
  10. Audit your own website on a monthly basis. Again, most nonprofits have multiple employees that add content to their website, so it is a good idea to routinely check your content for unsanctioned photo usage.
  11. Cut ties with any publications that have fined you in the past and find new resources to share your work and garner visibility within your community.

Forming New Partnerships

Consider carefully whether to accept any future offers from newspapers to feature your nonprofit. While visibility is important, it’s crucial to evaluate continuing a relationship with the newspaper that previously sued you for promoting their article. Would a true ally threaten you with litigation and demand money? Such predatory behaviors should not be rewarded by continued partnership.

On the other hand, the newspaper in question might not even be aware that a 3rd party is making copyright claims and demanding money in their name.

Either way, newspaper subscriptions are declining, and if non-subscribers are unable to access the article, the visibility gained is extremely limited. Exploring alternative options can be beneficial for your nonprofit’s visibility.

Here are some alternative PR trends that can provide your nonprofit with increased visibility and support while minimizing the risk of legal issues associated with unreliable newspapers:

  1. Online Publications & Podcasts: Look for online publications or podcasts that are supportive of nonprofits or have interests that relate to your cause, such as the Social Work Today or the Gastro Girl Podcast. Check out these lists of Social Justice Publications & Social Justice Podcasts that might be interested in featuring your nonprofit.
  2. Corporate Donors: Corporate donors are eager to show consumers that they are actively giving back to their community, not just monetarily. Some have even produced advertisements that feature causes or nonprofits they champion. If your nonprofit has corporate donors, do some research. Check out their website and social media profiles. Many have their own newsletters or blogs and would be more than happy to feature your cause. Some like: Poo-pouri even have a webpage dedicated to causes they sponsor. Don’t wait for your corporate donor to come to you. Be proactive. Come up with some ideas to pitch to them.
  3. Influencers: Reaching out to influencers in your area who are passionate about your cause can be a powerful strategy to gain visibility for your nonprofit. Influencers often have a larger subscriber base than traditional newspapers and can offer a higher rate of engagement from their followers. Additionally, their audience is more likely to have a local connection or a specific interest in your cause, making their endorsement even more impactful. Check out this article to learn how to harness the power of influencers.
  4. Affiliate Marketing: If searching for influencers is too time-consuming, consider starting your own Affiliate Program and let the influencers find you. Companies like Impact, GetAmbassador, or Tipalti can help you set up your sales parameters, assess affiliate applications, track sales affiliate links, and handle payments for you.

Influencers vs. Newspapers

One example of an influential figure is @sambentley, who runs the “Good News Channel” on Instagram. With an impressive 1.3 million followers and videos averaging 1.8 million views, getting featured on his channel could be a significant boost for your nonprofit. Sam is just the tip of the iceberg. More prominent influencers have over 20 million followers and average 54 million views per video.

To put it into perspective, in 2021, The Washington Post had 2.5 million subscribers and has been hemorrhaging subscribers at a rate of 500,000 per year. In October, 2023 The Post cut 240 jobs and lost $100 million in 2023 according to the New York Times. Now you see why newspapers, like the Washington Post, have resorted to hiring predatory companies to collect money for them through other means this year.

Staying informed and proactive is key to navigating the complexities of copyright infringement in the nonprofit world.

Nonprofits and businesses need to be cautious when dealing with copyright infringement claims from companies like PicRights and others. While these companies may send intimidating cease and desist letters, it’s important to question the validity of their claims and seek legal advice. By following the steps outlined in this guide, organizations can effectively address the issue and protect themselves from unwarranted licensing fees.

Additionally, taking proactive measures to avoid copyright infringement in the future, such as obtaining permission, using alternative sources for photos, and forming partnerships with online publications and influencers, can help nonprofits gain visibility without the risk of legal entanglements.

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