Inside the Operations of a Media-Suing Machine
Three years ago, an upstart company named Righthaven purported to acquire the rights to several newspaper articles and images for the express purpose of suing copyright infringers on the Internet. The ambitions of the company unraveled after judges figured out that the company wasn't really a copyright owner. But up until that moment, Righthaven launched more than 250 lawsuits against mom-and-pop Web publishers.
Now imagine an operation that instead of going after the small fish decided that it would be better to target the biggest media lobsters. Attorneys for blogger Perez Hilton believe they have stumbled upon such a venture, which they say "appears to be well funded, sophisticated, extremely aggressive, and successful in its volume business model of bringing in quick settlements."
At issue is "leaked" photos of Charlotte "Lottie" Moss, the teenage half-sister of supermodel Kate Moss. Among the media organizations that published the photos and were then hit with threats were Huffington Post, InStyle, Vogue Italy, Elle, Harpers Bazaar, Glamour France, MTV online, Gawker, Conde Nast, Newsweek and New York Magazine online. The cease-and-desist letters and lawsuits are reported to have earned the venture over $325,000 in settlement money.
Now Hilton's lawyers including Bryan Freedman and Jesse Kaplan at Freedman & Taitelman are looking to unravel the plot, and The Hollywood Reporter has obtained internal documents that show the workings of this outfit.
At the center of this story is a photographer named Andrea Carter-Bowman, who in 2011 is said to have been given the privilege of shooting Lottie Moss, then 14-years-old. The secret test shoot was arranged by Moss’ modeling agency, Storm Model Management, and a one-page agreement at the time of the photo session stated that "the photographer may not assign copyright in the images nor exploit the copyright, nor grant license to exploit it. For the avoidance of doubt, there will be no usage of any imagery from the shoot... unless negotiated and agreed in advance in writing with Storm."
Nevertheless, Carter-Bowman is described in new court papers as having later approached Storm about reconsidering its unwillingness to release the images, and when Storm refused (there were concerns among other things that Moss was a minor), the photographer "leaked" the photos to acquaintances in the fashion world. For instance, in early November, 2011 Carter-Bowman e-mailed the photography director at Teen Vogue, the picture editor at Look Magazine and others in a message titled "Introducing Lottie Moss (Kate's Little Sister) EXCLUSIVE IMAGERY," with the images attached.
Soon, the photos of the would-be supermodel Lottie Moss were appearing everywhere online.
Even though Carter-Bowman was allegedly told that she couldn't market the Moss photographs, her photo syndication agency of Lickerish is described by Hilton's attorneys as having "strategized to artfully circumvent the absolute restrictions," discussing "how to dupe several high profile media publications into believing that Carter-Bowman lost out on exclusive licensing fees."
To do that, Storm Model Management would have to be pushed aside.
In one e-mail sent by a Lickerish staff member, Carter-Bowman was advised to tell Storm not to contact any of the websites that had put up the leaked image. The e-mail adds, “Obviously we are going to concentrate on businesses as we can get a lot of money out from them but if storm just ask[s] them to remove it becomes more difficult to get money from them."
Attorneys were subsequently hired around the globe. A compensation structure was set up. For example, in the U.S., hired attorneys were given a retainer fee to send out cease-and-desists, a certain percent of any settlement money if they had to file a lawsuit, and a certain larger percentage if the lawsuit was contested.
Carter-Bowman's team also worked with a company called Image Rights, described by Hilton's attorneys as an outfit "that specializes [in] trolling the internet to identify supposedly unauthorized uses of photographs and recovering settlements based on such unauthorized use." It's also a company that appears from documents obtained by THR to be working with other litigious entities such as paparazzi agency Mavrix, responsible for dozens of other lawsuits against media companies over published photos of Beyonce, Katy Perry and other celebrities.