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Getty Images are being sued for $1 billion after claiming ownership of a public image

Carol Highsmith’s photographic archive is public, and Getty Images would do well to remember that. The photographer has filed a court case against the agency after being fined for using her own image without proper licensing.

Highsmith captures people and places as snapshots of American history, inspired by her forerunners Frances Benjamin Johnston and Dorothea Lange. For decades, she’s been donating works to the Library of Congress.

Carol Highsmith Sues

The image in question

After receiving a fine of $120 for using her own photograph, Carol Highsmith is suing Getty Images for fraud.

Getty Images is charging licensing fees to people and organisations for reproducing and displaying Highsmith’s donated images. The company, who claim themselves to be the exclusive copyright owner, has threatened these users, although they are freely available for public on the library’s website.

The photographer has accused the agency of illegally claiming the rights to her work and is asking for more than $1 billion in damages. Getty Images have been found guilty of similar bad faith business practices in the past three years. The entire lawsuit is published online, if you are so inclined to read it. It’s very long.

Getty has retaliated, intending to “defend [itself] vigorously,” arguing that the lawsuit is based on a “number of misconceptions.”

Highsmith has been donating her photographs to the Library of Congress since 1992 as an outlook on early 21st century America. The library now holds more than 42 thousand images of people and places around the country, some of them taken as early as 1980.

Nowhere on Getty’s website was Highsmith listed as the author, which could seriously damage the artist’s reputation. Uncredited images found on the Getty website could be misconstrued as an attempt to make a profit, undermining the entire purpose of her donations.

Have a look at her stunning portfolio (but maybe don’t rip it off the web for now).

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February 18, 2020