Miami-Dade County

Like these beans? Don’t copy the photo, or you might get a hefty bill

The image of the black-bean soup at the heart of the copyright-related lawsuit between New You Media of Fort Lauderdale and Adlife Marketing & Communications.
The image of the black-bean soup at the heart of the copyright-related lawsuit between New You Media of Fort Lauderdale and Adlife Marketing & Communications. South Florida federal court file

Porn. Poems. Pictures. The internet is awash in them. But more and more, people who download them, or use them on another website, are finding themselves targets of companies demanding money for illegally accessed copyrighted material.

Black bean soup — an innocuous snapshot of a tasty bowl, published on a South Florida health blog —has sparked the latest friction point between a media company and critics who believe these companies are “copyright trolls” unfairly shaking down online users.

Fort Lauderdale’s New You Media recently sued Adlife Marketing & Communications after the latter sent an $8,000 copyright infringement bill for a single image of black bean soup used on a post entitled “12 Easy Recipes for Shiny, Healthy Hair.”

The suit was filed last month just as two former South Beach lawyers, in an unrelated but high-profile case of copyright trolling, were indicted on charges of filing bogus copyright lawsuits over downloaded porn videos, some of which they filmed themselves.

Both cases, as well as several recent South Florida lawsuits over digital images, highlight the sometimes fuzzy line between outright trolls and companies genuinely needing to protect intellectual work.

“What makes these companies ‘trolls’ is they don’t seek fair value for the images,” said Oscar Michelen, a New York lawyer who specializes in helping people who receive letters demanding payments for photos. “They demand an excessive amount, threaten a lawsuit and scare you into settling for some lower amount.”

Adlife President Joel Albrizio, in an interview, defended the hundreds of letters sent over the past few months to users believed to have wrongly used his company’s images. He said his library — tens of thousands of snapshots of prepared food — is used by grocers and other companies that need the images for their own exclusive ads.

A bill for $8,000 is reasonable, he said, and Adlife is usually satisfied with the photos being taken off the web.

“We’re accused of being ‘trolls,’ but all we’re doing is enforcing the copyright on extremely valuable intellectual property,” Albrizio said.

Legal squabbles over copyrighted media on the internet are nothing new, and have evolved as digital content has been woven more and more into our daily lives.

The music industry went after file-sharing programs such as Napster in the late 1990s, and later after individual computer users who downloaded songs.

About a decade ago, new software that could identify copyrighted photos on websites helped companies such as Getty Images identify material used without permission on the internet.

Today, Getty — the world’s largest supplier of digital images, including ones to the Miami Herald — and other photos agencies regularly go after online users who use its pictures without authorization. It’s a messy business complicated by third-party stock-photo companies, the lack of sophistication of average online users and the sheer volume of images shared on the internet.

When the nets are cast wide, mistakes happen. In one recent case, Getty was sued in June after it sent a demand letter to a renown photographer – for posting her own photos online.

Several years ago, Robert Krausankas, who owns Web Design of Palm Beach, got a letter from Getty over two images he had on his business website. Krausankas called Getty and insisted that he had indeed purchased the rights to the images, to no avail.

Krausankas wound up not being sued, or having to pay anything. But he was so incensed he created a blog called “Copyright-Trolls” that regularly derides companies that demand thousands of dollars for one or two photos.

“I can’t stomach that these people do this,” Krausankas said. “If you wrongly use an image, you should pay. I’m in complete agreement with that. But not $8,000. It’s obscene.”

He’s not the only one to get angry. April Brown, a Seattle auctioneer, wrote a book about the “sleazy world of copyright trolls” after she received a demand letter for sharing The Dash, a popular inspirational poem by author Linda Ellis.

“These claims have so much emotion attached to them. People feel like, ‘I didn’t intend to do this,’” said Joel Rothman, a South Florida intellectual property lawyer. “And people don’t understand the law doesn’t require any intent, so they jump to the conclusion that they’re being wrongfully accused.”

Companies have certainly created controversy for demanding money for less savory content than poetry.

Two years ago, a California adult entertainment company called Malibu Media filed dozens of copyright infringement suits in South Florida against “John Doe” users who downloaded porn videos. Most of the cases were ultimately withdrawn.

Similar tactics by another legal team led to indictments last month against two lawyers, one of them a part-time Fort Lauderdale resident.

Federal prosecutors in Minnesota said Paul Hansmeier and John Steele used shell companies to buy the copyrights to pornographic movies, then sued people who allegedly downloaded the movies, threatening to publicly expose them unless they agreed to settlements.

The lawyers attended adult-entertainment conventions in Miami and Las Vegas, hiring actresses to film movies, then uploaded them to file-sharing websites to lure users to download them, prosecutors said. The pair, who drew widespread notoriety for their practices, collected some $6 million in settlements between 2011 and 2014, the feds say.

The two once had an office in South Beach, its Lincoln Road address listed on demand letters sent to users.

The videos had titles such as “Madison Fox: Busty Beauty in Red Lingerie” and “Rosemary Radiva: Petite Sexy Asian Plays with Herself.”

Hansmeier and Steele, who was arrested in Ft. Lauderdale, are awaiting trial on charges of fraud and extortion.

Most copyright infringement disputes, however, rarely involve criminal charges. And with the prospect of settlements, most copyright infringement letters don’t actually result in lawsuits.

In the case of New You, the health-blog company, it filed a preemptive lawsuit against Adlife, saying the $8,000 bill for the black-bean soup was “grossly inflated.” Two other companies, in Minnesota and Vermont, have filed similar suits, over photos of broccoli and brisket with vegetables, respectively.

Adlife itself has only filed a handful of lawsuits, federal courts records show.

When copyright infringement cases do wind up in court, they nearly always end in settlements.

Thomas Copulos, a Boca Raton dentist who performs dental implants, got slapped with a copyright infringement suit last March after Getty Images found he had used one of its photos on his website. That photo was entitled: “Young woman biting nail of index finer, laughing, close-up portrait.”

Copulos wound up settling for $5,000, court records show.

Florida Lawyers Network, a legal trade group, is still being sued by Getty Images over a photo of a lawyer consulting a legal reference book in a library.

The image was inadvertently posted by the website’s designer. Rothman, who is representing the network, acknowledged the case will likely settle — even though the photo was taken off the website.