Y’all are gonna have to bear with me on this one as it’s part blog/part journal. As all this was happening I kept soothing myself with “When I share this others will learn and it’ll keep it from happening to them. That’s why this is happening to me.” I even insisted the gag order be removed before settling because otherwise I just couldn’t make sense of the experience.

Ok, let me back up about a few months. During an individual consultation with a practice-building client, my client mentioned that Aaron from Legendary Lion, her web designer, told her that some of the stock photo sites aren’t legit and can get you into trouble. I told her to definitely listen to him since Aaron knows his stuff but I honestly thought, “hmmmm, good to know, maybe a little paranoid, but I’ll spread the word”.

About a month later, in early September I got an email from an attorney telling me I was being sued for copyright infringement and they were willing to settle for the amount of a nice new car. I got this email while at the grocery store and tried not to lose my shit. Literally. Apparently if a tiger ever comes after me my only defense is an intense need to poop and profuse sweating. How’s that for keeping it real?

Now let’s go back to 2014 when I opened my practice in Asheville. I don’t remember everything, but going to Google was likely my first step and whether I entered in “free stock photos Asheville” or “stock photos Asheville” is the only thing up for debate. I have no idea where I got the beautiful skyline picture, or if I paid for it, but I do know that it would have been through a stock photo site that I thought to be legitimate. And there the photo sat on my business FB page for years.

Back to September: having successfully not defecated on myself in public, I commence to freaking the fuck out in the silent, weird way I freak the fuck out. Big smiles, wide eyes, overly polite, shaky hands, so much sweat. Strangers look at me and want to give me a valium.

Two important things about my personality that are relevant here: 1) I’m a rule follower. I can’t remember the last time I knowingly broke a rule or a law. I even drive the speed limit most of the time. 2) In the Locke/Hobbes debate on human nature, I’m wholly Team Locke. Like, more Locke than Locke was. People don’t only know what’s right and try to do the right thing but they’re pretty and smell good, too! So you can imagine this scheme threw me. The feeling of being in trouble is foreign and highly distressing. I kept imagining that if I could just get lunch with the guy, explain that I meant no disrespect or harm, surely he’d drop the suit. Right? I’d removed the picture and sent an apology as soon as I caught wind that it wasn’t ok to have it. 4 hours later I got the email from his lawyer. Obviously I’m not supposed to contact the guy and his lawyer is calling and leaving me scary enough voicemails that I just wanna live in denial-land until it’s all over & done with.

I talk to a few attorneys, one of whom says he not only knows the photographer in question and his bully lawyer, but tells me how the photographer may or may not plant photos on free stock photo sites after federally copyrighting them. He then may or may not use web crawling software to find them before suing people. He knew of 4 suits going on at the same time as mine. It’s the dude’s business model and it’s all legal. I later talk to another therapist that went through this and apparently this guy isn’t the only photographer doing it. Some of the big agencies will also send emails and threaten suit. But don’t freak out. We’ll talk about how to avoid that in a minute.

An attorney I contact encourages me to call both my general (slip & fall) liability insurance as well as my malpractice insurance to see if they cover “Advertising Injury” which copyright violations fall under. My General doesn’t but my Malpractice does. After a week of not sleeping and feeling like I was in fight or flight on repeat, I was finally able to relax.  

And that’s why if I ever have another kid I’d have to name it American Professional in honor of my malpractice insurance. They were incredibly kind and helpful. The attorney they assigned me was also kind and helpful. He gave me the option to fight it, but dragging it out and giving my computer to investigators didn’t make sense for my stress levels or y’know, running an online business. Especially since I was (accidentally) guilty. 

After months of back and forth trying to find a settlement number that wasn’t so ridiculous, a check that included 5 digits before the decimal point (as in $XX,XXX) was sent December 20th and it wasn’t fully settled until January. I wasn’t allowed to talk about the suit, so if you saw me seeming overly adamant about anything regarding copyrights or stock photos or American Professional in FB Groups, that’s why.

I’m working on getting a copyright attorney to do an interview with me about best practices. In the meantime, whenever you download a photo from a stock photo site, screenshot yourself doing it & pop that baby in a file. A couple friends have gotten in trouble with Getty Images because they didn’t maintain documentation of the download. Another is being bullied by a company that may just be capitalizing on people’s desire to make this go away as quickly and easily as possible. Ultimately, the onus is on us to prove that we came by the photos legally which I totally didn’t know before this experience. 

So for now:

Big Lesson: Only Get Photos From Legit Sites (and probably pay for them) AND Screenshot yourself downloading it (that way if one of the agencies or a photographer comes to you & says “Hey that’s mine!” You can say “You need to talk to Stock Photo Site XYZ about that, not me. Here’s proof I had license to use it & proof that I got it through legitimate means.” I’m getting mine from Canva since they keep track of it for you.

Big Lesson: Wanna totally skip the drama? Take Your Own Photos.

Big Lesson: Malpractice Insurance Covers A Lot and American Professional gets my vote.

So please, please, please learn from my mistake.

Any lessons learned the very hard way you can share for the rest of us to learn from? Let us know in the comments!


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