Getty Images Bites Back in $1 Billion Copyright Dispute

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Last week Carol Highsmith filed a copyright complaint against Getty Images after an agent threatened the photographer for using her own photograph without their permission. Now Getty is fighting back, warning that it will defend itself vigorously if the dispute can't be settled.

gettyAs reported last week, US-based photographer Carol Highsmith is locked in dispute with stock-imaging giant Getty Images.

The dispute began last year when Highsmith’s This is America! Foundation received a threatening letter from a company calling itself License Compliance Services (LCS).

Sent on behalf of Getty-affiliated Alamy it warned that Highsmith’s use of her own photograph was a breach of the company’s licensing terms for the content. The matter could be settled for $120, the letter said.

While the cash demand was later dropped, Highsmith discovered that Getty and Alamy were offering more than 18,000 of her other photographs on their websites. Highsmith had previously donated her images to the Library of Congress for public use but noted that Getty was misrepresenting them by stating that users must buy a copyright license from the company to use them.

The resulting $1 billion dollar lawsuit against Getty made the headlines last week but unusually the imaging company has now chosen to make a public statement in advance of filing a response in court.

“We are reviewing the complaint. We believe it is based on a number of misconceptions, which we hope to rectify with the plaintiff as soon as possible. If that is not possible, we will defend ourselves vigorously,” the company says.

While this suggests that Getty might be prepared to come to an arrangement with Highsmith, the wording makes it clear the company is also prepared for a fight. According to Getty, it has done nothing wrong, and the fact that Highsmith placed her content in the public domain supports that position.

“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,” the company adds.

Highsmith’s complaint, which was filed last Monday in a New York District Court, begs to differ.

“The Defendants are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees to people and organizations who were already authorized to reproduce and display the donated photographs for free, but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner and threatening individuals and companies with copyright infringement lawsuits that the Defendants could not actually lawfully pursue,” the complaint reads.

Getty doesn’t directly address the copyright-trolling aspect of the dispute, other than to shift the responsibility of that to Alamy and LCS, the companies that sent the original $120 claim to Highsmith.

“LCS works on behalf of content creators and distributors to protect them against the unauthorized use of their work. In this instance, LCS pursued an infringement on behalf of its customer, Alamy. Any enquiries regarding that matter should be directed to Alamy,” Getty notes.

“However, as soon as the plaintiff contacted LCS, LCS acted swiftly to cease its pursuit with respect to the image provided by Alamy and notified Alamy it would not pursue this content.”

That anyone, anywhere, has a business model which involves sending out threatening letters to people using public domain images is worrying and clearly what inspired Highsmith’s lawsuit.

However, both Getty and Alamy are more than capable of putting up an extremely spirited defense, especially when a billion dollars is on the table.

This article has been updated to clarify that Carol Highsmith donated the images to the Library of Congress

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