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Getty Images is facing a $1 billion lawsuit for selling photos that were in the public domain

Carol M. Highsmith
Carol Highsmith was accused of copyright infringement for using one of her own photos on her website.
By Selina Cheng
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Photographer Carol M. Highsmith didn’t know Getty Images had been making money selling the 18,755 photos she donated to the US Library of Congress until December 2015, when she received an email from a company called License Compliances Services (LCS). The letter accused her of copyright infringement for using one of her photos on her own website, and came with a takedown request plus a $120 fine to compensate stock photo distributor Alamy.

Now, Highsmith is suing both Alamy and Getty, which has also been selling the images, for copyright infringement. She’s demanding $1 billion in damages. The suit was first reported by PDN Pulse.

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The LCS email was addressed to Highsmith’s This is America! Foundation, and gave her three options: clarify that she owns a license to use the photo, pay Alamy to continue using it, or take the photo down (and, incidentally, pay the $120 anyway).

Highsmith’s complaint asserts that the companies have been unlawfully charging licensing fees and “falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner” by printing their  watermarks over her photographs. She also says Getty and Alamy have been “threatening individuals and companies with copyright infringement lawsuits that the Defendants could not actually lawfully pursue.”

The website of the This is America! Foundation also specifies that the images “will be donated, copyright-free, to the Library of Congress,” meaning they should be available to the public for free.

In a statement, Getty Images said the incident was a “misconception” and noted that “distributing and providing access to public domain content is different to asserting copyright ownership of it.” It also says LCS “acted swiftly to cease its pursuit” after Highsmith contacted them.

Searching the Getty and Alamy websites for Highsmith’s photos no longer return any result, but as of Friday afternoon (July 29), the link to the foundation in LCS’s email still leads to a webpage claiming “Unauthorized Use of Alamy Imagery” with a thumbnail of the photo in question.

A link contained in the email sent from LCS to Highsmith leads to this page.

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