Getty Images red-faced over copyright tussle with photographer
If a picture paints a thousand words…
While Getty Images is rightly famed for its extensive library of stock pictures, it may be ruing the day it tried to bill a famous photographer for using her own images without seeking the company’s permission.
Carol Highsmith’s work has featured in some of America’s most prized books on history, landscapes and religion. She donated an eponymous photography collection to the Library of Congress and has work included in the top six collections from 15 million images in the Library’s Prints & Photographs archive. Her work can also be found in national publications including Time, New York Times and The Washington Post Magazine.
Caught in the act
Highsmith may well have been surprised, then, to receive a letter from License Compliance Services (LCS), on behalf of Getty subsidiary Alamy Limited, alleging copyright infringement. LCS had apparently ‘scraped’ the image from Highsmith’s website and requested a payment of $120 if she wanted to continue to use the photograph.
It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that until Highsmith received the notification, she wasn’t aware that not only had the company had been charging others to use images that she had donated to the Library of Congress for free public use, but that Getty and Alamy had also been selling thousands of other Highsmith originals, many stamped with false watermarks.
Pushing back with a lawsuit
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Highsmith responded not with a cheque for $120 but with a $1 billion copyright lawsuit against Getty Images over the ‘gross misuse’ of more than 18,000 of her photographs. The suit alleges that Getty had ‘misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people’ and were ‘unlawfully charging licensing fees’, at the same time
Getty has been uncharacteristically silent on the subject, though it did say it was reviewing the complaint which it believed was ‘based on a number of misconceptions’. Whether or not the company will maintain that charging for public domain content differs from asserting ownership of the copyright remains to be seen.
Putting a figure on damages
If Getty does lose the suit, it could be a costly error. While it’s difficult to estimate just how much Getty has benefited from the Highsmith collection, the photographer’s attorneys have already calculated damages of between $46 million and $470 million. In the wake of a similar case over an infringement of Haiti earthquake photos, Highsmith could also be in line for a payout of more than $1 billion. Now that would be worth framing!
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