If you're reading this you're probably a web designer or blogger, who got a letter from Pixsy. If that is the case you're certainly not alone. Thousands of bloggers are get these shake down letters from Pixsy every year.
Is Pixsy a scam?
Not exactly. While not technically a scam their business attempts to squeeze money out of people who thought they posted a "free" image. Pixsy is a picture search engine, that monitors the internet for their clients pictures. Some of their clients include large stock photo sites such as flickr. When they find one of their clients' pictures being used without permission, they send out a letter to the site demanding money. They use a lot of legalese and threaten a lawsuit if you don't pay up, but these letters are sent out without any real proof that the person posting the picture actually did anything wrong.
Even though Pixsy has only been around since 2014, the company's own website boasts the platform has led to 125,000 infringement cases and monitors over 150,000,000 images. The Pixsy copyright trolls are basically trying to exploit confusion over copyright law. Creative Commons licenses are a way for authors and artists to give explicit permission for others to use their work. However, many people don't realize that there are different types of Creative Commons licenses, and some of them have very specific conditions attached. For example, some licenses require that you attribute the author in a certain way, while others forbid commercial use.
Unfortunately many people who use search engines to find Creative Commons images are not familiar with the nuances of copyright law. They assume that all CC-licensed images can be used without any restrictions whatsoever. This is where the Pixsy trolls come in. They scour the web searching for photos that have been used without "proper attribution". They do not offer a chance to take down the photo, or correct the attribution, they just demand exorbitant fees. In my case the demand was for $1,200, all because a photo I used didn't link back to the photographer. I strongly suspect the photographer moved the photo in order to break the link but that's not really the point of this article. The bigger problem is the hundreds of thousand people being shaken down over threat of a lawsuit. I have a hard time believing a back link to a "free" photo is worth $1,200.
Why Is This a Problem?
There are two main problems with this business. First of all, it's just plain unethical. The company is preying on people who unsuspectingly use a "free" Creative Commons licensed image and instead of offering a chance to correct the issue they demand payment under threat of a lawsuit. Second, it's bad for the reputation of Creative Commons licenses in general. When people get burned by this company, it makes them less likely to trust CC licenses in the future - even though there are plenty of legitimate uses for them!
What to do if you receive a letter from Pixsy?
The good news is, there are ways to fight back against these shakedowns. Here are some tips:
1) Check to see if the image is actually copyrighted. Just because Pixsy says it is, doesn't mean it actually is.
2) If the image is copyrighted, determine if it's being used under "fair use" rules. This includes things like using the image for educational or news purposes.
3) If you are still unsure, you can always reach out to a copyright lawyer for help.
Don't let Pixsy bully you into paying them money! Fight back and protect your rights. My favorite reaction to a Pixsy demand letter comes from a lawyer at Justanswer.com. Basically he says:
You can pay the fee and be done with it or you could just decide to do nothing. If they sue, they would have to prove that they own the copyright, they would have to prove that you didn't use it under the fair use doctrine, and they would have to prove damages.
Under the fair use doctrine a court would review the purpose of your work, the nature of the copyright, how much you used, and how it affected the market. Even if they prove all these points they still have to prove damages which can be very difficult. How much could a person actually be damaged because you used a photo that is advertised as being free? So I guess you have to decide how much trouble it's worth and how many threatening letters you're willing to put up with. For me the answer is, "I will build an entire website of free images instead of paying them a single penny".
There even appears to be a law office investigating the possibility of a class action lawsuit against Pixsy due to their questionable business practices. I suggest you contact them through the form listed at the bottom of their page, I did.
In the meantime, I strongly suggest you carefully read the conditions on any Creative Commons licensed photos you intend to use. If you use one of those photos and the forget to link to the photographer you could look forward to a stack of demand letters from Pixsy.
In my opinion Pixsy is an unethical company that is shaking down people who use Creative Commons licensed photos. They are bad for the reputation of CC licenses and they make it harder for people to trust and use them. If you receive a demand letter from Pixsy after using a "free" image, I'm of the opinion that you should not pay them but that of course is your decision. They won't give up easily and there is always a chance they will actually drag you into court.
If you're not already mad enough I suggest reading this article from ComputerWeekly.com: Automated image recognition: How using ‘free’ photos on the internet can lead to lawsuits and fines. It outlines several particularly infuriating examples of how one person abuses the system and enriches himself off of schools and charities who accidently fell into the free image trap.
I hope this article has helped shed some light on the Pixsy situation and given you some ideas on how to deal with them if they come after you. Creative Commons licenses are a great way to share images and other content but we need to be aware of the pitfalls and not let companies like Pixsy take advantage of us.
If you have fallen victim to this scheme I want to hear your story. Please leave your comments below or contact me privately here.