The surf shop claims they own the photo – but everything is fake
The photo depicts a surfer on the beach in Biarritz, France. It is photographed by New York-based adventurer and freelance photographer Zak Suhar.
“Happy International Surfing Day!” writes Zak Suhar when he uploads the photo on his Instagram page on June 21, 2016. Today, 415 likes later, the photo is not only published on Zak's Instagram: it’s also available on an airline's website to recommend surfing in Malta (even though the photo was photographed in France), on a site for water cleaning filters and in an article about photography on kamerabild.se. To mention a few examples.
The image has taken on a life of its own. And it was our own publication of that photo that resulted in an email on April 4, 2022:
“Best owner of kamerabild.se. My name is Valerie Atkins, I'm a trademark attorney at Arthur Davidson Legal Services. I'm contacting you because your site contains content that has infringed on a copyrighted image owned by our client Surf Gear Ltd. The use of this image (here linked to the surf image on our site) has been published without the correct byline.”
Thereafter, the email continues with references to copyright laws and that the law firm has started a “case” against us. If we do not correct our copyright infringement, the lawyer must “take legal action”, she writes.
It sounds threatening. And it is of course meant to be, to make us feel doubtful about whether the image publication is correct or not. In a way, the law firm is successful, since we feel compelled to investigate the matter. But the threat leads us to an advanced scam – and to a specific person living in Thailand, to which we will return shortly.
Kamera & Bild has downloaded the surf image from Pixabay. A collection site for images that can be used freely in both editorial and commercial contexts. Many of the images on Pixabay in turn come from other similar sites that also deal with so-called stock images, images that are royalty free and that can illustrate articles in various subjects. Such as surfing.
The current image from Biarritz has been uploaded to Pixabay by the site Stocksnap.
Not by Zak Suhar. It's clear when we get in touch with him.
– Thanks for letting me know! It's strange because I have never personally uploaded any photos on Pixabay or Stocksnap, says Zak to Kamera & Bild.
“I own the rights to the photo”
Since we felt compelled to investigate who actually owns the copyright to the surf image, we have had to act as detectives on Google. Zak Suhar's name is not mentioned on Pixabay or Stocksnap. But after various Google image searches, we find the photo in the New York photographer's image gallery. Among several other images that are photographed in the same environment and with the same light is: The Biarritz photo.
There is no doubt that Zak Suhar is the photographer.
– Yes, the post you link to is my photo. I own the rights to the photo, but since it was posted on Snapwire a long time ago, the company may have purchased and downloaded it from there, Zak explains how his image has spread.
“Photos are ‘stolen’ all the time”
Snapwire is a site where photographers can upload their photos for sale. Zak did that already in 2014 with the surf photo from Biarritz, and it is still for sale at the site today. It costs $75 to get it in large format, if you choose a smaller size, it will be cheaper. With the purchase, you get a so-called “royalty free license”.
It is from Snapwire that Zak believes that his image has begun its journey out among the world's stock sites. However, just because someone has at some point bought his image royalty free from Snapwire, does not mean that it can then be spread anyhow. The purchase only applies to one buyer's use of the image – not for everyone to use freely, and that’s how it seems to have turned out in this case. And for Zak, it comes as news that his photo is now published on everything from airline sites to kamerabild.se.
But he still seems to take it with calm.
– In a perfect world, I really want to get paid for the use of all my photos. But this is a very old photo, so it's okay in this case, he says and continues:
– It is a tough battle between the value of exposure versus monetary value. In the age of social media, it's tough when photos are “stolen” all the time.
They threaten with legal consequences
What about the claim from the law firm Arthur Davidson Legal Services, the agent for the surf shop Surf Gear Ltd who claims to have the right to the image?
Of course, their threatening “we must take legal action” is just fake. Zak has never heard of the company.
But to what use do the lawyers pursue this case, or rather the surf shop? Well, for a reason that also made us at Kamera & Bild start to suspect. The shop does not want us to remove the surf image from the article or pay any compensation for the alleged copyright infringement. They want us to:
“Our customer, Surf Gear Ltd, is pleased that their image is being used and shared over the internet. But a proper byline is required for continued use. Surf Gear Ltd must be added below the image or in another suitable place on the infringing site, with a link to cheapsurfgear.com.”
For everyone who works with media sites today, it is no news that links is hard currency. Every day, a handful of emails come to Kamera & Bild with suggestions for so-called “collaborations”, where they want us to put in various links for a small amount of money. The result they want to achieve with the links is to get a higher ranking on Google.
Arthur Davidson Legal Services has thus taken this to the next level. Instead of kindly asking about a “collaboration”, they threaten with legal consequences if we do not directly put in a link.
This threat probably works from time to time. Because as we have been able to state, there is a big question mark about whether all images on, for example Pixabay, are there in accordance with the photographer's wishes. Therefore, some image publishers will probably be unsure of what is valid and take the safe before the unsafe and insert a link to the “copyright holder”, something that would make the law firm drop the case.
Surf Gear Ltd has not been lazy either. To give credibility to their scam, there is actually a website for the law firm, with a rich staff gallery where the employees are presented.
Several of these images look suspiciously AI-generated, or picked up from other sites. Kamera & Bild manages to derive one of the images from an author with several titles in psychology on the major book sites. He's not a lawyer.
Another of the employees has had at least four to five name changes in recent years and is found in a number of companies around the world. If one is to believe that he even exists.
The site was shut down
Kamera & Bild has on several occasions replied to Valerie Atkins' email, the woman who introduced herself as a trademark lawyer. First, we asked “do you want us to delete the image completely or is it enough that we correct byline?”
We were even clearer and wrote “regarding ID # 1608” as they wanted us to state in our communication about this “copyright infringement”.
Next email: “We have not heard anything from you, do you have the opportunity to answer our question?”
Finally, we gave them the chance to respond to this article, after we found the right photographer for the photo of the surfer.
No answer – but a couple of days later the site for Arthur Davidson Legal Services was shut down. Nowadays it cannot be reached. However, the site for the surf shop is still running, and that's where Kamera & Bild finally finds the connection to who is behind the scam.
“This company is a complete scam”
The surf shop thus goes by the name cheapsurfgear.com and on Trustpilot they only get the highest rating from those who have given reviews, but several of these good reviews are followed by profile photos that also look suspiciously AI-generated. And what serious company gets hundred percent five of five in rating on Trustpilot?
However, there are two reviews that stand out – from people who have seen through the scam. Including Robert S from Canada:
“This company is a complete scam that uses malicious, predatory tactics to get links to its site from unsuspecting websites. They pretend to be a law firm and send out false notices of copyright infringement for surfing images that websites have posted via sites such as Pixabay.”
Robert S has also done his own research:
“They have even stolen a cleaning company's telephone number which they use on their alleged legal page. The poor cleaning business owner is harassed with calls, looking for the “lawyers”.
He concludes with “truly the most bizarre and intricate scam I've seen online that must have minimal returns”.
Yes, what does one not do for a link? The hard currency in the age of the internet.
The scammer lives in Thailand
Kamera & Bild can now reveal that the “bizarre” scam was not created by any “lawyers”, not by any “Valerie Atkins”, but by a man who claims to be a photographer from England and who now seems to be living in Thailand, according to himself. He is also active on the stock photo site Shutterstock, something that tells us he has some ideas of how the stock photo market works. But the scammer had missed a small detail in his otherwise fairly well directed show – but the small detail reveals him.
Because when we put a product in the shopping cart on cheapsurfgear.com, and click on the PayPal symbol to pay, a sentence appears at the bottom that reads “cancel and go back to…”. There's a name. The scammer's name most likely – as the holder of the PayPal account.
Kamera & Bild can determine this by visiting his Facebook page where, among other things, a link leads to his photographer's website – which is in fact a casino site. And among nature photos and photos of lightly dressed women on his Facebook page, there is also a post with a link to a site called cheapsnowgear.com. Something that seems to be a sister site to the one for surfing, and which compared to the surf shop has received significantly more upset reviews on Trustpilot. The winter site is linked to the one for surfing stuff, and both sites are also registered at the same address: Kalkofnsvegur 2 in Reykjavík in Iceland(!) What can you find there? The answer is: The Icelandic Phallological Museum.
And as predicted, also the scammer's site is registered on the same adress – together with the site for Arthur Davidson Legal Services, the one that is now shut down. All four sites also uses the same domain hosting servers from Namecheap.
“It's kind of hard to check all contents”
The photographer behind the surf image is anyway Zak Suhar, who from a young age has appreciated being in the nature – and photographing it.
He has approved that we write about him and use his image from Biarritz in this article.
Kamera & Bild has also searched both Pixabay and Stocksnap with questions about how they check that the images on their sites do not infringe copyright.
– Our license includes that all users who upload photos agree that they own them and that they are not stolen. But we do not have a way to check if an image is copyrighted or not, unless it is reported or if the original owner contacts us. It's kind of hard to check all contents, but as much as possible once we receive a report we make sure to ban the user who violates our terms, writes Monina from Pixabay in an email to Kamera & Bild.
She clarifies that “in these times, material is easy to steal, especially when everything can be found on the internet, but we assure you that we help our users to check and investigate this”.
Monina uses almost the same words as Zak did earlier in the article: “in the age of social media, it's tough when photos are ‘stolen’ all the time”.
This is what it looks like, unfortunately, but if you get a claim from Arthur Davidson Legal Services, you can at least dismiss it as a scam.
This is the email from Arthur Davidson Legal Services:
Dear owner of https://www.kamerabild.se/fotoskolor/fotografering/sa-tar-du-battre-bild...,
My name is Valerie Atkins, I am a Trademark Attorney of Arthur Davidson Legal Services.
I am reaching out to you as your website features content that has infringed on one copyright image owned by our client, Surf Gear Ltd.
The use of this image - https://i.imgur.com/ePekFrU.jpg is featured on your web page - (https://www.kamerabild.se/fotoskolor/fotografering/sa-tar-du-battre-bild...), without proper image credit attribution.
The Wayback Machine - https://web.archive.org/, a permanent public archive of the web, shows the image being used on your website.
Our client, Surf Gear Ltd, is happy for their image to be used and shared across the internet. However, proper image credit is due for past or ongoing usage.
The image credit to Surf Gear Ltd must be added underneath the image or somewhere appropriate on the offending page with a link to cheapsurfgear.
Otherwise, we are required to take legal action.
I have assigned case ID #1608 to track this dispute, which should be quoted in all correspondence. Once you have added an image credit to the page, the case against you will be dropped.
This letter is an official notification under Section 512(c) of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (" DMCA"). If this is unresolved immediately we'll have to proceed with filing a DMCA legal case.
I am providing this notice with authority to act on behalf of the owner of the copyright(s) involved.
Arthur Davidson Legal
177 Huntington Ave 17th floor
Boston, MA 02115