The stock photo company Getty is now being sued for $1 billion dollars after claiming ownership of thousands of photos that it did not own and charging licensing fees to third parties. Getty has earned a reputation for being aggressive in defending its copyrights and frequently sends out settlement demands to anyone making use of an image from its library without permission. It’s one of those settlement demands which got the company into trouble in this case, and if they hadn’t sent it, Carol Highsmith might never have realized the company was using her photos without permission.
In December of 2015, a company called License Compliance Services(LCS) sent a settlement demand to Highsmith on behalf of Getty. The letter claimed that Highsmith was displaying an image on her website without a license and demanded $120 to settle the dispute. During a phone conversation with LCS, she explained that she was the owner of the image in question. LCS later got back to her to confirm that they dropped the demand and would not sue Highsmith over the use of the image.
Even after finding out that Highsmith was the owner of the image, Getty continued to claim itself as the copyright holder and continued to charge licensing fees to third parties to make use of the image. A deeper investigation revealed more than 18,000 images in Getty’s library which belonged to Highsmith. The fact that company was charging licensing fees was particularly upsetting to Highsmith because those images were from a much larger group she had donated to the library of Congress. She had made those images available for the general public to freely reproduce and display as long as she was credited.
The lawsuit that was filed against Getty lays out Highsmith’s case. It states that Getty has no contract or agreement with Highsmith to use the 18,000 images that appear in its library. It also notes that Getty’s website contains factually false information about the authorship and copyright ownership of the images. Nowhere on the site does it identify Highsmith as the sole author and owner of the photos. Finally, the lawsuit argues that Getty has unjustly profited by charging licensing fees on photos that Highsmith deliberately made available to the public to be used free of charge.
Due to the number of instances of copyright infringement, the stock photo company could be liable for up to $468,875,000 in damages. However, the filing notes that Getty is a repeat offender and has been found liable for copyright infringement less than three years ago. On those grounds, the judge could increase the damages to $1 billion or more.
Should Getty pay $1 billion for what it has done, or would a different punishment be appropriate? Leave your comments below.