Intro to Copyright Extortion: Schoolyard Shenanigans, Robbers, and Copyright Trolls
Today’s post will have some tongue in cheek humor as I introduce something that is not at all funny. In a lot of ways bully schoolyard shenanigans, robbers, and copyright trolls have so much in common that it isn’t funny, but I do believe that copyright trolls are the worse of the lot.
I came to know about copyright trolls and extortion by becoming an unwilling, unfortunate target. I am far from being alone. This happens to thousands or even millions of people every year around the globe. I have been targeted by two of these scoundrels on two of my websites under two differing conditions. Even people who try to do things right and abide by the law become targets (like me). People don’t even have to really do anything wrong to be targeted just like in the schoolyard or on the street somewhere. Basically all you have to do to be a target for a copyright troll is to have: 1) an IP address, 2) have a website with/without content, or 3) share anything whatsoever. These schemes and copyright infringement in general seems so easy due to the advent of the Internet. I remember at about 20 years ago you had to really go out of your way to commit copyright infringement and there would be no question about what was going on. It’s not like that anymore. I also remember in school that the thing you had to really worry about was plagiarism. You still do, but it has blown way out of proportion.
I in no way support copyright infringement like many honest, hardworking people out there. I also am a fellow creator of intellectual property myself(author, artist), so I do try to respect the property of others. Copyright infringement does happen, unfortunately, and that is part of the occupational hazards that comes from the business of sharing work with others. It’s the same as opening up a store somewhere and having to deal with shoplifting. So many other people out there who try to abide by the law and respect others are bumfuzzled when they have been accused of infringement and the threats that come along with it.
Now, copyright trolling falls on the other end of the spectrum to infringement. It can be summed up as good copyright enforcement gone bad. People have a right to protect their work. It would be like someone stealing one of my books or parts of that book without attribution, permission, or making money off of it at my expense. I would have the right to pursue the matter. Now this is not what copyright trolling and extortion is, so artists who sue people for legitimate infringement with a rock-solid case are not trolls or extortionists. I will use these illustrations as examples to illustrate how copyright extortion might work (there are multiple variations that could apply):
I have just published my book and listed it for sale on Amazon and other retailers. I have granted these platforms the right sell and distribute my work where readers can purchase a copy for their own enjoyment. A reader who also is a book reviewer either received 1) free copy from me personally 2) got it off of a free promotion on a retailer or another site where I offered it for free (not a pirate site) 3) bought it and proceeded to write a review, posted excerpts with commentary, and a copy of the cover. Let’s say they loved it, and I never knew this reviewer had posted the review since it wasn’t on Amazon or Goodreads. Amazon has a robot named Bookscout to scower the Internet for text and covers on websites, forums, ereaders, etc. Sometime later (maybe even years) this reviewer gets a settlement demand letter or possibly sued by Amazon for copyright infringement and they (Amazon) say they represent me. They demand this reviewer pay them $1000 or they would pursue the matter to actual litigation for statutory damages of $150K + legal fees. They claim they are the copyright holder and they have a hive of lawyers and an entire department that handles this at their disposal.
In this example, I am the actual copyright holder, and I have no knowledge that Amazon has done this and used my work for extortion (Amazon doesn’t do this in real life, BTW). Amazon is the extortionist here, and I am not, but I’m sure after a while my books wouldn’t sell very well, and I would look bad until it was found out that Amazon did this with multiple authors. Here, this reviewer is obeying copyright law under fair use and is not infringing on my rights. Amazon hasn’t been given the right to sue the reviewer. In possible actuality, Amazon may be guilty of infringement as they are using my work in a scheme to make a profit. Furthermore, I don’t get anything other than my usual royalty checks, so I don’t see any money from this “enforcement” or recoup any “damages”. As long as I am still making money and don’t know anyone is pissed off, life goes on.
I have listed my book for sale on multiple platforms and readers had legitimately purchased the ebooks. Amazon, without my knowledge, moved my book to their KDP Select Program (which means they have Exclusivity to sell my book). They use Bookscout again, and it can get into people’s ereaders and check to see if they had purchased the book from Amazon. There is no receipt on record as they bought it at Apple, B&N, or Kobo. They either have the receipt or not, or maybe they downloaded it for free somewhere where I may have offered it free, or they got it in a giveaway where I legitimately offered it to them and it was still on their ereader, and there is no receipt because it was free. Of course if they got it from me directly they have my permission to read and write a review, but they can’t sell it to anyone. Amazon’s department that handles this thing and/or their attorney sends all the readers a nasty letter saying they are infringing on my copyrights and they and their attorneys represent me. Even when people provide their receipts, they say that the readers could have made that up. (I am not making this stuff up; it really exists!)
Again, I know nothing of it unless I check and see that Amazon put my book in their exclusive program without my permission. Again, I still make my royalties from Amazon and elsewhere and nothing from this “enforcement”. Of course I am wondering why my readers are pissed off and blaming me? Amazon is the perpetrator and people’s ereaders aren’t their safe little virtual book reading forts anymore because of the unholy monster called Bookscout and it’s hive of lawyers and “license specialists”. And, Amazon does this with many of its authors other than the high-list, household-name authors. Don’t want to piss off any readers there or everyone will know what’s happening here. In this case, I could sue Amazon for copyright infringement as I didn’t give them permission to make my title exclusive with them and they are using my ebook in an extortion scheme. Had I not checked or any readers told me, I would have not known.
I find me a local IP (intellectual property) attorney and we team up to make a quick easy buck. This attorney has software that works like Bookscout does for Amazon that can locate “infringers”. I upload my book on as many websites as possible as a free download. “My buddy and me” sit back and wait. After some time, has passed and there have been lots of downloads, we send out the bots and the nasty extortion letters. As the money starts rolling in, my attorney and I see it’s paying off huge as opposed to if I would have tried to sell this book legitimately, and he gets a cut. So then it grows and grows…
In this example, I am the extortionist and the attorney is my little helper. I don’t recommend this behavior, BTW. If you do/are doing this, you are scum. This is what Linda Ellis is doing as her little side job with her poem (see last week’s post).
There is more complexity to the issue than this, but this can give you an idea what the big deal is here. Sometimes they catch real infringers, and this kind of “justifies” the behavior to some extent. Other times there can be a simple, innocent mistake, or in others, there is no infringement at all, but they demand money and harass people relentlessly regardless and demand huge settlements. How is this okay or good copyright enforcement? How can this be likened to schoolyard shenanigans or robbers? It’s what happens inside the letter and after it is received that is the big deal.
The business world can be likened to the grown up version of the schoolyard. It’s where we have to do our daily activities to function in society. Of course, every schoolyard has bullies.
You can follow the school rules, make good grades, and be all you can be at school and still be targeted by bullies. They target you because they want something from you or you threaten them in some way albeit inadvertently. As anyone knows, anyone can be a potential target for a bully. As they make more people cower in fear, the stronger they get. The longer they get away with the bullying and the principal and teachers do nothing about it, the worse it gets.
In the extortion sense this is the bully that goes around stealing everyone’s lunch money or they will beat them up and/or stuff them in a locker or trash can or give them a wedgie in front of the entire school. If they tell on the bully, then “they will be sorry”. So people give the bully their lunch money out of fear. Then the abuse continues because no one tells the school about it and more kids are targeted. Some kids stand up to the bully. The bully can raid the snack machines and get lunch for him and his posse on everyone else’s dime while they don’t get their lunch that day or ever again.
People have to stand up to the bully and usually band together to put a stop to it. Unfortunately in some cases when someone is brave enough to approach a grown up at school, they don’t do enough, or worse still, nothing at all. So the bully is able to keep up his behavior.
Robbers are the schoolyard shenanigans taken to a lethal level. This usually involves loaded guns or any other kind of weapon. They usually hide their identities. They usually want money or other things of value. The threat is gone once they leave the scene with the goods/empty handed or if someone makes a stand or the police arrive.
If someone chooses to surrender their wallet, they can kill their credit cards and take other preventative measures for damage control. Except from what was lost and maybe some PTSD and aggravation, everything is fine.
Should something go bad here someone could die or be sent to the hospital. Then it’s usually over.
Thugs in Three-Pieced Suits
Copyright trolls are most of the time lawyers or they are usually involved. That doesn’t mean that every IP lawyer or every lawyer is a thug in a three-pieced suit; it’s just these sleazy lawyers make other lawyers look bad, while real professionals don’t avoid the “visit us” and other clear and transparent statements. Plus there are some artists that are extortionists and there are large conglomerate corporations that are as big as Amazon (hence the choice in the examples above) that house entire departments for their extortion campaign and they employ their thug lawyers with them. So basically, copyright trolling and extortion is big business that nets big profits. The bigger the company, the bigger the scheme, the bigger the profit. Some industry leaders in some industries are extortionists and it really hurts that industry and people wonder why sales are in the toilet? The actual incidences of true infringement are fractions of what is being “reported” and how it may be reported.
I think these thugs are worse than any street thug or gang banger that’s out there. These people can make your life a living hell. The loaded gun they wave around and use is the law (in this sense copyright law), knowledge of the law (they are mostly lawyers after all), and the legal system as a means to threaten and strike fear into anyone on the receiving end and they use that same system to collect. There can be real damage if the trigger is pulled. It’s not a toy gun that has a flag that says “bang!”. The effects are much worse and lasting than any bullet or projectile. They can and will invade your privacy on something alleged. It’s like getting a involuntary cavity search at the airport by the TSA, and some of them threaten to do a full-on colonoscopy if they are in the mood. Their mantra is, “Pay us or we sue you.” They may or may not have a case; chances are they are making it up as they go along and put whatever they feel like in the letter to scare the bejeezus out of people (personal experience here!). If you admit guilt when you aren’t even guilty can get you into hot water if you aren’t careful. It’s up to YOU to check into it, so like the bully or robber on the street, you can fight back or hand over the money.
These thugs don’t leave no matter what you do unlike our street robber. If you concede to their demands, they may be back for more money and other “infringements”. If you choose to stand your ground, they will harass, threaten, and bully you for a maximum of 3 years which is the statute of limitations for this type of thing. Plus, if they pursue it hard enough and they find the dirt or you incriminate yourself by flaming with them, they can drag you into court and cause large scale financial hardship, bankruptcy (get the Toronto consumer proposal company consultation on the matter), property seizure, etc. This is the most extreme thing and a majority of the time they can’t. Most of the time they don’t sue as it cuts into their profits, or if unless they think they have a chance at those bigger profits. They don’t give a rat’s tuchus about your rights or the artists’ rights, so keep that in mind. Also keep in mind you don’t have to prove your case to these people–have it built just in case and really evaluate the situation, because you may be surprised at what you might discover, and if anything helps your case, keep it close to your chest. They have to prove you did anything to a judge before it can go that far, and you should prepare that defense in the event it is ever seen by a judge. Remember, chances are this hasn’t even been seen by a judge or a court yet.
The success of these operations is staggering. It would make the mafia or any drug cartel envious. I’m pretty sure the mob would like to employ some of these lawyers on their team. What they can do with copyright law is far better than what they can do with breaking legs, fully automatic guns, and brass knuckles.
Here are some other synonyms for these kinds of people: copyright mafia, copyright Nazis, copyright cartel, copyright thugs, etc.
Reading these letters from my two trolls has been an eye-opening experience. One of my trolls sent a letter that could have been from the Waffen SS or the KKK molded to fit copyright law in the extent of false accusations and threats. I’ll talk more about it soon. Beforehand though, I didn’t know this problem of epic proportions even existed, and it’s the same with each and every new person it happens to. That’s because these trolls have frightened almost everyone into silence, and unlike some of their predecessors, they are keeping it out of the media. Their populations are growing all the time as more of them are created as they operate unhindered and unchallenged. Their methods of gathering information have also been done more quietly due to advancements in technology. Some of this technology would be very useful in good copyright enforcement that is done as it should be done and done correctly as it was intended in the first place. As it is right now, the tech that is in the hands of these people is like giving Al Capone a rocket launcher or John Dillinger a 20 mm rifle with incendiary cartridges. Take your pick.
All of this are the secrets to their success. There is a lot of commentary online about it but the people who can do something about it aren’t. It’s just like the epic fails at school with the bully stealing lunch money–as long as he didn’t bring a gun to school to perpetrate his money making scheme, he won’t get expelled.
To make matters worse, this extortion isn’t considered illegal. Hence it is called legalized extortion. Doesn’t make it right. Now, if someone were to prove a case on the basis of fraud and/or racketeering among others, then it may be a different story.f
About the Author
AK Taylor is an award winning YA author who has been writing novels since age 16. Beekeeper, outdoor sportsman, avid adventurer, and animal lover. Taylor lives in the backwoods of Middle GA where she continues to write stories.