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  • Writer's pictureLeslie A. Farber

Online Content and Copyright Trolls

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

If you’re the owner of your own website or business, or have ever for any reason uploaded content to a publicly visible site, there’s a good chance you’ve been scared straight about procuring the proper copyrights to images, articles, videos, and any other form of media taken from another source – and for good reason.

Over the last decade or so, online content producers have become increasingly vigilant about tracking down accused infringers who, knowingly or otherwise, used copyrighted content without permission. Normally, one might accept these cases as cut-and-dried in favor of the content producer, who may just be attempting to defend their artistic output from exploitation or unfair use. And in some cases you would be correct. Think back to the infancy of online music when everyone was just downloading music. Between 2003 and 2007, the Recording Industry Association of America sued over 30,000 individuals and we learned to pay for music. But what happens when companies take enforcement of their copyrighted media to the next level, aggressively pursuing legal action purely for financial gain?

Getty Images is a company known for aggressively enforcing what it claims to be its copyrights. They send “settlement demand letters” to website owners accused of using images without permission. Getty is not simply looking for a cease-and-desist, they want owners to pay for images already used, often for several thousands of dollars. Ignore them and you may end up in court. Last year Getty filed several federal copyright-infringement complaints with virtually identical language except for the names of the defendants and images. These tactics have given Getty a reputation for being a bully.

Another company, called, stated out a website for erotic films distributed through subscription. Their subscription base grew to over fifty thousand uses in just two years and then leveled off. The owners, Collette and Brigham Fields hired an outside investigation company to find out if people were watching their films without paying. They claim that three hundred thousand people were downloading their films via BitTorrent software each month without paying. The owners of then started a second company called Malibu Media, LLC. In the past year, Malibu Media LLC has filed more than thirteen hundred copyright-infringement lawsuits—more than anyone else. Some people claim that X-art and Malibu Media were created solely for the purpose of enticing people to use BitTorrent to download these films so they could sue them for copyright infringement and that Malibu Media associates arrange for the films to wind up on BitTorrent file sharing websites. Either way, the Fields and Malibu Media have made millions of dollars by alleging copyright infringement.

Malibu Media is a “copyright troll” company. As defined by Wikipedia, a “copyright troll” “is a company that enforces the copyrights it owns for purposes of making money through litigation, in a manner considered unduly aggressive or opportunistic, generally without producing or licensing the works it owns.” Critics object to copyright trolls because they believe they do not encourage the production of creative works, but rather, make money through the inequities and unintended consequences of the high statutory damages provisions in copyright laws that were supposed to encourage the creation of such works. Last year, a federal appeals court[LF1] *[SB2] [SB3] made it harder for these trolling companies to file suits. The court ruled that they could no longer bundle multiple users together in a single suit. Now the financial merits of each case needs to be evaluated individually.

So how does the complicated world of copyright infringement litigation affect the average consumer? Probably mostly in the pocket book. Subscriptions to Pandora, Beats Music, Spotify, Shutterstock, fotolia, iStockphoto, abound. Stick to media you’ve legitimately purchased and you probably won’t find yourself in a copyright troll lawsuit.

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