Photographer Carol M. Highsmith spent years documenting every nook and cranny of America in 18,755 photos. In an extremely generous gesture to the American people, she donated the entire portfolio to the Library of Congress. The Library calls this “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library.” Now, she’s suing Getty Images for $1 billion over unauthorized use of those photos.
The photos in question are fantastic, with everything from stunning landscapes to wacky portraits of unusual people. Donating these photos was a wonderful gesture — I’m even willing to forgive the fact that Highsmith’s website is designed entirely in Flash. Image licensing firm Getty apparently liked her photos so much, it started licensing them. The problem, however, is that Getty doesn’t have the rights to them. Right on the Library of Congress website, Highsmith’s photos are listed as being in the public domain.
This situation came to Highsmith’s attention when Getty sent her a demand for payment because her website used one of her own photos. Specifically, the one above. Bold move, Getty. Highsmith notes that she never gave up her copyright on the photos, and now she’s exercising those rights to take Getty to court. She alleges that not only was she sent an improper demand letter, but others have gotten similar letters after using her public domain images. How these photos ended up in Getty’s portfolio is unclear.
Several years ago, photographer Daniel Morel was awarded $1.2 million from Getty for infringement of one photo. That’s what the $1 billion figure is based on. Although, the statutory damages if Getty infringed all 18,755 photos would only be $468,875,000. Yeah, just half a billion dollars, no big deal.