A $1Bil court case that could change the stock photo landscape

By Shane Drew / July 29, 2016 / No comments


There are many generous people in society, many just doing what they do without worrying about what financial costs or burdens, they just do what they think is right and hopefully the recipients appreciate the generosity in which it was given.


One such person is Carol M. Highsmith  , probably one of America’s best loved and most iconic documentary photographers. She has been documenting american lifestyle and iconic images for decades. She is at the very top of her field.


She is also a very generous soul, donating thousands of images to the United States Library of Congress at no charge since 1988, so the general public can have free access to her documented images. Congress calls the donation “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the library”


Carey Dunne, in her article for the online publication Hyperallergic, tells us how it was discovered:


“Carol Highsmith received a letter from Getty Images accusing her of copyright infringement for featuring one of her own photographs on her own website. It demanded payment of $120. …. Highsmith came to learn that stock photo agencies Getty and Alamy had been sending similar threat letters and charging fees to users of her images, which she had donated to the Library of Congress for use by the general public at no charge. ”


It wasn’t just one or two photographs either. Over 18,700 of her photos have been claimed by Getty and Alamy as their own. Some included false watermarks and gave no credit to the original photographer at all.


The article goes on ….. “Highsmith has filed a $1 billion copyright infringement suit against both Alamy and Getty for “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs. “The defendants [Getty Images] have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people,” the complaint reads. “[They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees … but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.” According to the lawsuit, Getty and Alamy, on their websites, have been selling licenses for thousands of Highsmith’s photographs, many without her name attached to them and stamped with “false watermarks.”


Its not the first time Getty have been caught doing something illegal with other peoples images. They seem to feel they are beyond reproach.


It makes for an interesting read here .


The issue for those of us that use social media is, how do we know that Getty, Alamy or whoever aren’t stealing our photos and selling them as stock photo’s to unsuspecting buyers.


The truth is, we don’t.


The two instances that they have been caught fraudulently selling others images as their own is most likely the tip of the iceberg in what is out there illegally.


Can we do anything about it? We certainly need to be vigilant and be alert, but unless we are a high end photographer who would watermark their photo’s anyway, there is probably little we need to worry about.


The real issue is if we buy a Getty image and find out later they didn’t have the royalty free rights to the photo. We may find ourselves involved in an expensive and time consuming legal battle we are ill prepared for or can not afford.


When Getty Images bought Istockphoto, they paid $50m and that included all photos on their database. The assumption was that Getty own the contributors photos and that is what they’d like to imply, but the truth is, they don’t own contributors photo’s at all, they just own the rights to sell them for a commission.


Without doubt Getty are very aggressive in the photo markets they dominate. They have 200 million images available, are forming partnerships with many companies that own smaller competitors, opening their markets up to Asian centers that are basically untapped to this american giant.


With nearly 2000 employees around the world, clearly their thirst for dominance has landed them is some serious hot water. The case of Mrs Highsmith is a perfect example of that. Will they get away with this for less than a billion dollars? Time will tell.


Interesting times.


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