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Scam Alert: False Copyright Claims on Wikimedia Entries

In December, Petapixel reported a new type of scam targeting users of images uploaded to Wikimedia Commons and available for use through a Creative Commons license. Scammers were editing the entries for images posted to Wikipedia to claim that they were the copyright holders. They were then contacting users of those images and informing them that they were violating the image’s copyright by not properly crediting them as required by the copyright license. The scammers requested either link backs to their websites or demanded a payment of royalties.

The scam was unearthed by photographer Kyle Cassidy and writer Eric San Juan. San Juan outlined how the scam unfolded in a blog post. He had used one of Cassidy’s Wikimedia photographs for his blog ­. Correctly, he thought, because he had attributed the photo and linked it to the license as stipulated by the attached Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license. He was confused when he later received an email from Aldwin Sturdivant, asking him to credit the image to his website as a way to “support my humble work.”

Curious about how he could have missed the correct attribution, San Juan went back to the image’s Wikimedia page. There, he saw that while the photo caption stated, “Photograph taken by A. Sturdivant,” the image summary listed Kyle Cassidy as the author. San Juan became more suspicious when he saw that the link back URL went to a link affiliate website, which generated income from clicks. He then went to the website of the business listed in A. Sturdivant’s email signature, Green Cap Marketing. The website claimed that Green Cap provides services that enable photographers to track down unauthorized use of their photographs. However, San Juan couldn’t find any trace of an “Aldwin Sturdivant” anywhere on the Internet, other than the Wikimedia post information.

At that point, San Juan contacted Kyle Cassidy, the original author, to ask if he had any connection with Green Cap Marketing. As Cassidy related in a Twitter thread, he had taken the photo using a different camera than the one entered into the photo credit entered by A. Sturdivant. Cassidy also discovered that “A. Sturdivant” was responsible for a number of false photo credits on Wikimedia Commons. Repliers to his Twitter post pointed out that the address and phone number for Green Cap Marketing was clearly false. (The website has since been taken down.) Another user provided a link to the user contribution page for A. Sturdivant, which showed 21 edits to photo captions in November and December 2020.

Wikimedia users did their own digging and discovered that A. Sturdivant was one of several fake or “sock puppet” accounts making fraudulent edits to photo captions on Wikimedia photos. In fact, a total of 25 accounts, including these accounts, were sock puppets of another account, Virginia.dmeadia. All have since been blocked indefinitely from Wikimedia. In San Juan’s case, the aim of the scam seems to have relatively benign—to drive traffic to the link affiliate website (which derives income from clicks). However, from the Wikimedia administrator’s notice, “A. Sturdivant is Back,” it appears that some of the unwitting targets of the scam were asked to pay usage fees for the photographs.

Best practices when using a Wikimedia image:

  1. Check the Creative Commons license and use the image correctly according to the license.
  2. Check that the author and the photographer listed in the caption match. If they don’t, research the photographer and the author—on Wikimedia Commons, via an Internet search by the photographer’s name, or by a reverse image search. (An author and photographer may not match for legitimate reasons—the author of the Wikimedia post may have the right to upload the image or may be doing so as an agent of the photographer.)
  3. If you receive a notice that you have misused a Wikimedia Commons image, revisit the image page to check that you followed the Creative Commons license terms correctly. Double-check the changelog for the Wikimedia image to see what edits have been made to the entry.
  4. If you believe the notice is fraudulent ­, contact the photographer directly. A scammer may be using their identity or claiming copyright to their image fraudulently.
  5. If you believe scammers or sock puppets are making fraudulent edits to image posts, request attention from Wikipedia Administrators.