Getty Images Sued for Selling Public Domain Photos

August 5, 2016

In today’s digital world it can be difficult for photographers and trademark holders to control the use of their pictures. To combat copyright infringement, licensing companies like Getty Images keep a close eye on where their photos are posted. For instance, using a Getty-owned image on your blog without permission will likely result in a cease-and-desist letter from company representatives. That’s what happened to photographer Carol M. Highsmith when she received an email informing her that an image on her website infringed on Getty’s copyright. The only problem: Highsmith had snapped the supposedly offending photo herself.

The picture was part of a set of more than 18,000 photos that Highsmith had donated to the Library of Congress years ago. While available to all for free in the public domain, she retains the copyright for her work. Getty found this fact out the hard way when they asked Highsmith to prove she owned a license for the photo or else face a $120 fine. Not only did she inform Getty that she was, in fact, the image’s copyright holder, but also she soon slapped the company with a lawsuit seeking $1 billion in damages.

Highsmith’s work isn’t the only example of public domain pictures in Getty’s gallery. The company offers licenses for photos taken by the famed Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange as well as a wealth of free-use material available from the Internet Archive. Getty then takes these images and charges fees as high as $5,000 for their use. According to experts, however, Getty is not breaking any laws by selling these images. “If this stuff really is in the public domain,” said copyright activist Carl Malamud, “you can use it any way you want, and that means for commercial purposes.” On the other hand, this rule only applies to the direct sale of a public domain image, not for any dubious copyright fees. So while Highsmith might not be able to prevent Getty from selling her pictures, she could prevent them from continuing to seek copyright claims on public domain photos.



  1. Should Getty Images disclose which of its photos are freely available in the public domain?
  1. Will Highsmith’s lawsuit succeed?



Source: Selina Chang, “Getty Images Is Facing A $1 Billion Lawsuit For Selling Photos That Were In The Public Domain,” Quartz, July 31, 2016; Michael Hiltzik, “Getty Images Will Bill You Thousands To Use A Photo That Belongs To The Public. Is That Legal?” Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2016. Photo by April Killingsworth.