Copyright Trolls and SEO Spammers


A few thoughts on things persistent in today’s news feeds, and inboxes. In 2021, we saw a dramatic increase in Copyright Troll activity. Emails sent from Copyright Trolls can scare the most steely of small business owners. They talk a big talk, they’re forceful, and if you engage with them even once they’re relentless. We want to share our experience in dealing with these online vultures and the best way to keep those threatening emails at bay.

“While they use similar tactics, Copyright Trolls are worse than SEO spammers and they can be much more painful to deal with in the long run.”

I have a family-run lavender farm where I help with the management of marketing services. This website does very well in search engines, and it attracts a lot of attention in general. Between the contact form, orders, and online chat, MKL’s lead management is a full-time job.  Due to my experience, I knew that because of this website’s popularity and traffic I was in for some SPAM. That’s because spammers pick on websites that are easy to find. The better your website is at generating traffic, the more of a target you become. 

It’s always a sign when customers reach out and tell me they’re getting unsolicited emails from SEO companies.

It means that their website is gaining rank and garnering attention. Often these companies have found your website and are looking to capture business. Even more often, they assume that you don’t understand what you’re doing online to get the results you’re getting. As a result, they try to capitalize on your perceived inexperience. 

However, sometimes it’s regrettably not that admirable. There are some trolls and spammers who are looking to inject your website with Malware. Even more who attempt to steal your credentials for further cyber fraud. That’s why it’s important to be wary.

Don’t click links from strangers online the same way you don’t take candy from a stranger offline.

Copyright Trolls often send over their first correspondence by email. If you’re lucky it goes unnoticed in your SPAM or Junk folder. This is where these emails should all remain. And, this is frankly where they should be immediately banished to in case one squeaks through to your inbox. 

If you’ve used a reputable web development company or in the case of my family lavender farm, you’ve used all of your own images, then the number one thing you can be assured of is that you aren’t likely in violation of any copyright laws. You either own the copyright by virtue of the images being your own. Or, the company you hired to build your website and provide stock images is sourcing them correctly. However, if you didn’t clear that with the company that built your website in the first place, then you might have reason to shake in your boots. In most cases, you’ll still be fine to delete the phishing email in question, so please keep reading!

In our case, all of the images on the lavender website were taken by yours truly. It was laughable when an email came in pointing to a large image of our own lavender plants in a neat row. I promptly deleted the first email, which requested that I click a link to view the picture in question in more detail. This was one of the first of more nefarious attempts to inject Malware into my device. 

The emails followed nearly every day for a period of 10 days. Like clockwork, they also progressively became more and more threatening, from ensuing legal action, jail, and hefty fines and penalties for the longer that non-compliance dragged on. I diligently deleted all of them as they hit my inbox and here’s why.

My experience

This wasn’t my first or even my second rodeo when it came to dealing with trolls. In fact, previous to my own personal experience I had to go through it with clients. In the early days, we encountered copyright lawyers acting on behalf of ill-advised clients. Oftentimes, they were American and were operating out of their jurisdiction and just looking for a really easy payday.

Know your Sources

If you didn’t take the images yourself then you absolutely need to know where images are coming from, especially if they are being used in any of your marketing materials. This is true of websites, presentations, brochures, signage, cards, magazine print, etc. If you use an image and you didn’t personally capture it, then it requires credit and in most cases some form of monetary compensation. Generally speaking, your marketing company should have a subscription to a stock photo website such as iStock which allows them to select images each month on a subscription plan and includes the proper licensing required. If you hired a photographer to snap your images then it’s likely that you signed a copyright agreement when you engaged their services. 

Keep your Records

This is one of the key reasons you should NOT hire a friend, acquaintance, or student without experience or a clear copyright disclaimer. Copyright Trolls aside, if an image is used improperly online you could be penalized and it could cost you. A lot. 

Digital images require proper usage rights licensing. The same goes for fonts, illustrations, and other digital assets.

"There is a person out there who would very much like to be compensated for that digital piece of artwork that you're going to use to promote your business online."

copyright trolls

They should be paid accordingly. By using the right channels you can ensure they get their piece of the pie too. 

When you use a professional marketing company to build your digital footprint then make sure you check with them very early on about their photo and copyright policy. It should be current, clear, and spell out how images are procured. 

What steps should you take if you’ve engaged with a troll and you can’t get rid of them? 

This is a common question and while we can’t offer legal advice on the matter, we can detail our experience in making 100% of them go away. We’ve had many clients get this SPAM delivered to their inbox and a panicked email is often sent our way asking for help. 

Our advice in the following situations:

You have confirmed the image was procured properly and you have not responded to the email.
  1. This is the best situation to be in with a troll. Delete the email and return to business as usual. Forget about it. Also, plan on deleting the subsequent emails that will follow. Eventually, the emails will stop and the troll or spammer will move along to their next victim. It’s also a good idea to block the sender and mark the email as SPAM.
You panicked and answered, apologized, or denied using an image that you know was procured properly.  Don’t worry, while it will take a little longer for them to go away, they will eventually lose interest in your lack of communication.
  1. Delete the email and all subsequent emails. You can also block the sender and mark the email as SPAM when they come in. 
You aren’t sure where the image in question was procured and you can’t track it down. 

First of all, don’t panic. We advise you to replace the image in question immediately with one where you can verify its proper records. 

Remove the image in question from your website, media gallery, and any other place it shows up in your business name eg: old social media posts, profiles, etc.

Next, delete the email(s) from the troll or spammer. Eventually, they should lose interest.

They won’t stop harassing you after you’ve removed the image and you feel that you should respond

Short of hiring a copyright lawyer to begin defending your case, or paying the ransom amount the spammer is demanding, below is the only dialogue we endorse. If you must get in contact, either because you believe the claim is legit or because you don’t like loose ends then this is the information you should consider sending in your reply. 

Forward a copy of your representation agreement with the photographer
Forward proof that this copyright has been registered in Canada

Oftentimes, the spammer can’t produce a representation agreement stating that they are in fact working on behalf of the photographer/artist to reach a settlement. This is a red flag that you are dealing with a spammer in a phishing attempt. 

The other red flag is when the spammer can’t send proof of registration in the country where they are attempting to reach a settlement. Chances are, that if you send these questions back to the spammer they will have concern that they are dealing with someone a little more educated on the matter at hand and they’ll disappear back into the shadows of the Interwebs to find a new target. 

If they come back to you with something even more legit, then you might need to consider legal advice. 

Have you been the victim of Copyright Trolls? Share your story, and help others recognize this ugly form of online behaviour before they get scammed too!


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