Getty Images messed with a bull this week and now they’re being chased by some very big horns. Carol Highsmith was sent a settlement demand after Getty Images accused her of using one of their photos. Unfortunately for Getty, the image was entirely Highsmith’s own work and is even featured on her website. So in a dramatic turning of tides, Highsmith has hit back with an enormous lawsuit.

Getty Images is a media agency where customers can browse a vast archive of stock material. After paying a fee the customer then has the right to use the appropriate images in their own publications. Like most media agencies, Getty is very possessive of its material and is constantly trawling through the web looking for cases where their material has been taken without a proper license. Financial compensation is always the punishment for using their material without the right permission, and in Highsmith’s case, Getty Images demanded $120.

The This Is America! Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Highsmith, received a letter in December 2015 from the License Compliance Services (LCS) on behalf of Getty-affiliated Alamy (A British stock image agency). It stated that they had seen images represented by Alamy being used by Highsmith’s company, and that she did not have a valid license to use the images. It went on to explain that although the infringement may have been unintentional, copyright law still gave Alamy the right to seek compensation.

The Image In Question

The Image

Normally when an alleged picture pirate receives an intimidating letter from a large corporation about going to court if compensation is not paid, it’s time to pay, run and hide. The difference here is that Highsmith took the photo herself. Clearly the case had a gaping hole in it. After a short phone call explaining the absurdity of paying a license for her own work, the LCS dropped the case two days later saying the matter was closed.

Despite bringing the LCS to heel, the situation grew sour. In the past, Highsmith donated thousands of images to the Library of Congress to be used freely by everyone, but Getty and Alamy missed the memo on LCS dropping the case, as well as Highsmith’s generous donation. The companies allegedly misappropriated more than 18,000 of Highsmiths photos for profit across their websites. In some cases Getty was reportedly demanding $575 for the rights to just one of Highsmith’s images despite the content being freely open to the public. Adding insult to injury, Getty also hounded down legal users of Highsmith’s images with aggressive settlement tactics. So in response Highsmith and her lawyers filed a suit on July 25th in a New York District Court and made their case crystal clear.

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.

The reason the counter copyright claim by Highsmith is so staggeringly high is due to another case that Getty lost (Morel v. Getty) within the last three years. For commercial use of her images without permission, Highsmith says that Getty is liable for just under $500 million damages. But given Getty’s track record, the court has leverage to double it to a 10 figure payout, a crisp $1 billion. Getty’s traditionally self-righteous reputation has done them no favors, and public opinion will be leaning for Highsmith to see out a victory and deal a heavy blow to the giant of image media. Everyone loves a good underdog.