Photographer Carol Highsmith is known for her Americana-themed images, which she has captured in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Since 1988, she has been providing the images, free of charge, to the public through the Library of Congress. Unknown to her until recently, stock photo agency Getty Images had been selling her photos to paying clients while allegedly claiming exclusive copyright over them.
But now Getty says that Highsmith gave up her rights to file suit over any copyright when she donated the images to the public domain. On September 6, Getty asked the courts to dismiss the case, filed earlier this summer, because they claim that Highsmith can’t own the copyright to a public domain image. According to the stock photo agency, selling images that have a public domain license isn’t illegal — after all, book publishers sell copies of public domain classics like Shakespeare, the court documents argue.
Highsmith filed a lawsuit against the agency on July 25, alleging “gross misuse” of her photographs, according to PDNPulse. The suit asks for $1 billion in damages, an uncommonly high amount for a copyright case, but Highsmith cites a precedent in the case of Morel v. Getty, in which a photographer was awarded $1.2 million based on the misuse of a small number of photos. Highsmith alleges that Getty violated her copyright on more than 18,000 images.
While Highsmith provided the images to the Library of Congress for free, she apparently never released the copyright. She asked that the Library of Congress inform users of her images that she is the author, and that users give credit for each image used.
“The defendants have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people,” the claim states. “[They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees … but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.”
Getty believes Highsmith’s complaint is “based on a number of misconceptions,” according to a statement the company made on July 28. “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.”
Somewhat ironically, Highsmith claims she only found out about Getty’s use of her images when she received a letter from License Compliance Services (LCS) on behalf of Alamy, a stock agency affiliated with Getty. The letter charged her with copyright violation for using one of her own photos online. According to Highsmith’s complaint, LCS has apparently sent similar letters to other users of her images who found them through the Library of Congress collection. She called the practice “brazen and extortionate.”
The truth may not be quite so dramatic, however. Getty clarified in its statement that “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,” suggesting Highsmith’s complaint may be the result of a misunderstanding.
Updated on 09-12-2016 by Hillary Grigonis: Added information from Getty’s request to dismiss the case.
Updated 07-29-2016 by Daven Mathies: Added information from Getty’s statement and to clarify the roles of LCS and Alamy.