Getty Images learns the high cost of outright greed: $1 billion
Michael Hiltzik has an interesting column in the LA Times that illustrates the idea of profit at any price occasionally does have a very high price:
Carol Highsmith is a distinguished photographer who has traveled all over America, aiming to chronicle for posterity the life of the nation in the early 21st century. She’s donating her work to the public via the Library of Congress, which has called her act “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library.” The Carol M. Highsmith Archive, which is expected ultimately to encompass more than 100,000 images, is accessible royalty-free via the library’s website.
So one can imagine Highsmith’s reaction last December when she got a threatening letter from a firm associated with the photo licensing agency Getty Images, accusing her of license infringement by posting one of her own images online. The firm demanded a “settlement payment” of $120 from her nonprofit This Is America! Foundation, backed up by the implicit threat to take her to court.
Actually, one doesn’t have to imagine Highsmith’s reaction. One can read all about it inthe lawsuit she filed this week against Getty in New York federal court, accusing the agency of illicitly claiming rights to 18,755 of her photographs and seeking more than $1 billion in damages. The lawsuit also names Alamy, a British-based licensing agency that was purportedly the license holder whose rights were infringed. Neither Getty nor Alamy had the right to claim a license or copyright on her photos, she says.
The letter came from License Compliance Services, an arm of Getty Images. Gettyclaimed to Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica that LCS and Getty have “no operational relationship,” but Highsmith’s lawyers say that’s dubious. The two companies share corporate quarters in Seattle, as well as three top executives, they observe in the lawsuit.
Highsmith, 70, found several aspects of Getty’s behavior especially irksome, beyond the fact that the agency “misrepresents the terms and conditions of using the Highsmith Photos by falsely claiming a user must buy a copyright license from Getty” in order to use them. (Indeed, numerous publications, including The Times, have used Highsmith images with credits to Getty.)
Getty nowhere identified Highsmith as the sole creator or copyright owner of the photographs it was hawking to the public. Nor did it volunteer to its clients that the photographs were available for free, in high-quality digital format, from the Library of Congress.
That could damage her own reputation, Highsmith says, since it could look as if she’s been trying to profit from images she had ostensibly donated to the public: “Anyone who sees the Highsmith Photos and knows or learns of her gift to the Library could easily believe her to be a hypocrite.”
Neither Getty nor Alamy has filed a formal answer to the lawsuit. In a public statement, however, Getty responded with bluster. The agency says the lawsuit is “based on a number of misconceptions” and plans to “defend [itself] vigorously.” It acknowledges that the images are in the public domain, but still maintains that it has the right to charge a fee for distributing the material. “Distributing and providing access to public domain content is different to asserting copyright ownership of it,” Getty says. That’s true as far as it goes, but skates over the question of who gave it permission to distribute the content on any terms.
Alamy has said even less. . .
Greed-poisoning: it’s real, and this is an example. As the story notes later:
. . . In 2013, a federal court jury found that Getty and Agence France-Press had “willfully infringed” a photographer’s copyright on eight photos from the 2010 Haiti earthquake that the photographer posted on Twitter, but had been reposted without permission by another photographer. Getty conceded liability and, along with AFP, was slapped with $1.5 million in damages. . .
$1.5 million apparently wasn’t enough to teach Getty a lesson. Perhaps $1 billion will help them understand.