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Getty Images embarrassed in copyright dispute with photographer Getty sued over copyright infringement - Getty Images in hot water after it billed famous US photographer Carol Highsmith over a copyright infringement when she published her own pictures on her website. Full view

Getty Images in hot water after it billed famous US photographer Carol Highsmith over a copyright infringement when she published her own pictures on her website.

Getty Images embarrassed in copyright dispute with photographer

What’s a picture worth?

Getty Images is renowned for its comprehensive library of stock pictures, though it may be regretting a recent decision to bill a famous photographer for using her own images without seeking the company’s permission.

World-famous photographer Carol Highsmith has had her work featured in some of America’s foremost books on history, landscapes and religion. Her images are constantly in demand – she donated a collection to the Library of Congress and her work can be found in the top six collections from 15 million images in the Library’s Prints & Photographs archive. Highsmith’s images can also be found in national publications such as Time, New York Times and The Washington Post Magazine.

An unexpected bill

With her work enjoying this kind of status, Highsmith is likely to have been blindsided by a letter she received from License Compliance Services (LCS), on behalf of Getty subsidiary Alamy Limited, alleging copyright infringement. LCS ‘scraped’ an image from Highsmith’s website on which Alamy claimed to own the rights and requested a payment of $120 for continuing to use the photograph.

Ironically, until Highsmith received the notification, she hadn’t been aware that the company had been charging others to use images donated to the Library of Congress for free public use and that Getty and Alamy had also been selling thousands of other Highsmith originals, many stamped with false watermarks.

Time to bring in the lawyers

Unsurprisingly, Highsmith didn’t reply 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. Details of the suit allege that Getty ‘misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people’ and were ‘unlawfully charging licensing fees’.

Getty hasn’t publicly responded to the lawsuit, but has stated that a review of the complaint was underway which was ‘based on a number of misconceptions’. It remains to be seen whether the company will maintain that charging for public domain content differs from asserting ownership of the copyright.

How much could it cost?

It could be a costly move for Getty if the decision goes against them. It’s not easy to estimate just how much Getty has benefited from the Highsmith collection, although the photographer’s attorneys have calculated damages in a broad spectrum beween $46 million and $470 million. Following a similar case over an infringement of Haiti earthquake photos, Highsmith could also be in line for a payout of more than $1 billion. Put a frame around that!

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Written by Diane Nowell