American documentary photographer, Carol Highsmith, is suing stock image libraries giant Getty Images and its subsidiaries Alamy and PicScout for $1bn (£760m) for demanding payments for the use of photographs they did not own the rights to.
Carol Highsmith who has been described as being "America's Photographer" has been chronicling the USA by taking photographs showing people and places in the US. Her work, in the form of a photograph of Jefferson Memorial, was selected by the U.S. Postal Service for its Priority Mail stamp with over one hundred million stamps being the image being produced.
Since 1992 Ms Highsmith has donated many of her images to the Library of Congress for the general public to use asking only in return for use that she be credited with taking the pictures.
Ironically, Highsmith was made aware of the infringement by Getty after Licence Compliance Services (LCS) a body working on behalf of Getty and Alamy, sent a letter to This is America! Foundation, a non-profit organisation set up by Ms Highsmith, demanding that it pay a $120 fee for displaying one of Highsmith's photographs on, what is effectively Ms Highsmith's own website.
On receipt of the letter Highsmith provided proof that she was in fact the author and owner of the photograph. Unsurprisingly, LCS decided to close the case against her.
Despite LCS acknowledging this mistake, Getty and Alamy persisted on showcasing Highsmith's photographs on their website and continued offering them for sale until the lawsuit was filed on 25 July 2016.
The documents filed by Highsmith's lawyers state that, "The Defendants have apparently misappropriated Ms Highsmith's generous gift to the American people."
"The Defendants are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees to people and organisations who were already authorised to reproduce and display the donated photographs for free, but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner (or agents thereof), and threatening individuals and companies with copyright infringement lawsuits that the Defendants could not actually lawfully pursue."
Getty responded to the claim by stating that, they are reviewing the complaint and that it believes that "… it [the claim] 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."
It added that, "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."
Why is the claim for $1Billion?
Highsmith discovered Getty was apparently "representing" more than 18,000 of her images through the Alamy agency. In the lawsuit, she alleges that Getty has grossly misused 18,755 of these photographs by charging a fee for the use of the images meaning that the claim is worth the huge sum.
This is not the first time that Getty has been threatened with legal proceedings in similar circumstances. In 2014, photographer David Morel was awarded $1.2m in damages after a federal jury found that Getty and AFP wilfully violated Morel's copyright by uploading eight exclusive news images to their website depicting the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They offered these images for sale and distributed them without his permission.in: Case Law, Copyright, EU/International, News