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Getty sued for US$1 Billion for licensing public domain photos

By Marcus Wong - on 4 Aug 2016, 11:17am

Getty sued for US$1 Billion for licensing public domain photos

 Carol Highsmith self-portrait in a broken mirror that she photographed during the Willard Hotel restoration, Washington, DC (c. 1980–90) (image via Wikimedia Commons)


Documentary Photographer Carol Highsmith’s work has been used in many books about America’s cities, states, religion and historical renovations. And her donated collection at the U.S. Library of Congress has been featured as one of the top six collections out of 15 million images in the Library’s Prints & Photographs archive. 

So imagine her surprise when she received a letter from License Compliance Services (LCS) on behalf of Getty-affiliate Alamy Limited accusing her of copyright infringement for the use of one of her own photographs on her website! LCS warned Highsmith that this was a breach of Getty’s licensing terms for the content, but the matter could be resolved for a mere US$120, and that’s how the photographer came to learn that Getty and Alamy have been sending similar threat letters and charging people for the use of her images that she had donated to the Library of Congress for use by the general public at no charge.

The donation doesn’t mean that Highsmith loses the copyrights to her photos at all though, so as you can imagine, Getty is now in for a hefty lawsuit. Forbes reports that Getty and Alamy had been selling thousands of Highsmith’s images without her name attached to them, and many even had false watermarks stamped over them, so it’s obvious the company was claiming it as its own – 18,755 times in fact.

Since each violation in this case allows the plaintiff to seek damages of up to US$25,000, the statutory damages for Getty should amount to $468,875,000. However, because Getty was found to have violated copyright law within the last three years – Daniel Morel was awarded US$1.2 Million in a similar suit against Getty in 2013 – Highsmith can seek three times that amount, hence the US$1 billion suit.

Part of the complaint states that: “The injury to Ms. Highsmith’s reputation has been … severe… There is at least one example of a recipient of a threatening letter for use of a Highsmith Photo researching the issue and determining that Ms. Highsmith had made her photos freely available and free to use through the Library website. … Therefore, anyone who sees the Highsmith Photos and knows or learns of her gift to the Library could easily believe her to be a hypocrite.”

Apparently Getty Images has issued a statement that the company is reviewing Highsmith’s compliant, stating:

“The content in question has been part of the public domain for many years. It is standard practice for image libraries to distribute and provide access to public domain content, and it is important to note that distributing and providing access to public domain content is different to asserting copyright ownership of it.”

If asking someone to pay US$120 for the use of an image isn’t “asserting copyright ownership of it.”, we don’t see what is. Whichever way you see it though, it looks like Getty is going to pay out big time. Here’s hoping some of it goes back to the people who wrongfully paid Getty for the “license” fees they paid.

Sources: Forbes,

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