This photograph, like nearly all of Carol Highsmith’s, is donated to the public via the Library of Congress.Carol Highsmith / This is America! Foundation
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A well-known American photographer has now sued Getty Images and other related companies—she claims they have been wrongly been selling copyright licenses for over 18,000 of her photos that she had already donated to the public for free, via the Library of Congress.
The photographer, Carol Highsmith, is widely considered to be a modern-day successor to her photographic idols, Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange, who were famous for capturing images of American life in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.
Inspired by the fact that Johnston donated her life’s work to the Library of Congress for public use in the 1930s, Highsmith wanted to follow suit and began donating her work “to the public, including copyrights throughout the world,” as early as 1988.
According to the lawsuit, Highsmith’s gift continues “to the present” as she continues to take new photographs.
However, the case may have already had its intended effect: when Ars searched Getty Images on Wednesday afternoon, Highsmith’s photos seem to have disappeared from the site. However, they remain on Alamy, a British stock photo site that is also named as a defendant in the suit.
As one of Highsmith’s attorneys, Joseph Gioconda, wrote in the Monday lawsuit:
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 organizations who were already authorized 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 must therefore account for well over one billion dollars ($1B) in statutory copyright damages in this case.
According to the suit, Getty and its affiliates have not only sold unauthorized licenses of Highsmith’s photos, but they have sent threatening letters to people that they believe have infringed the copyright.
One of those recipients was Highsmith’s own non-profit group, the This is America! Foundation.
The copyright enforcement entity, License Compliance Services, demanded $120 in payment. LCS is believed to be connected to Getty Images, which has developed a reputation for aggressively pursuing claimed license fees over alleged afoul publication.
Highsmith then had a 27-minute phone call with LCS, where she explained that she was the author and that she found it baffling that she had to pay a license fee for a photograph that she not only took, but donated to the public.
Two days later, she got an e-mail from LCS, saying that it considered the matter “closed.” However, according to the suit, the photo in question remained on sale by LCS and Getty.
Sarah Lochting, Getty Images vice president for communications, sent Ars a statement which said that the lawsuit was “the first time Getty Images was made aware of the matter. We are currently looking into these allegations with the aim of addressing these concerns as soon as possible.”
Lochting also underscored that LCS and Getty Images are “separate entities and have no operational relationship.”
However, DNS records show that LCS’ listed address is 605 5th Avenue South, Suite 400 Seattle, Washington, which is Getty Images’ corporate address, a fact that she would not explain to Ars.
“It’s a no comment in response to your follow up questions,” Lochting e-mailed.
Gioconda declined Ars’ request for comment.