Photographer Carol M. Highsmith has sued Getty Images for copyright violations under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), alleging “gross misuse” and false attribution of 18,755 of her photographs of Americana. She is seeking $1 billion in damages for the DMCA violations, an unusually high amount for any copyright claim.
Getty and its subsidiaries are “falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner” of Highsmith’s images, a violation of the DMCA, she says in court papers. DMCA provisions make it illegal to remove, modify or falsify copyright management information.
Despite allegations of misappropriation and unauthorized use of her images, Highsmith is not explicitly claiming copyright infringement, or seeking damages for that.
Highsmith filed suit July 25 in federal court in New York, alleging that Getty and its subsidiaries have been charging fees for the use of her images without her consent. She has been providing the images to the Library of Congress since 1988 for use by the general public at no charge.
“The defendants have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people,” she says in her claim. “[They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees…but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.”
Highsmith says she never abandoned her copyrights to the images. She says the Library of Congress had agreed to notify users of the images that she is the author, and that users must credit her. But Getty has not only distributed her images without her permission, it has failed to give her proper credit, despite the copyright information attached to her images, Highsmith alleges.
She says in her lawsuit that she learned of Getty’s use of her images when she received a letter from the agency in December 2015, charging her with copyright infringement for the display of one of her own images on her website. Getty demanded that she pay for the use. She subsequently discovered that Getty was sending such demand letters to other users of her images, according to her lawsuit.
She says Getty has continued its “brazen and extortionate conduct” by continuing to threaten users of her images, despite her objections.
She is seeking statutory damages up to $468,875,000 for the alleged DMCA violations. But she is seeking $1 billion dollars because a previous copyright judgment against Getty enables the court to triple the statutory damages in Highsmith’s case, according to her attorneys. (The previous case in question was Morel v. Getty, which ended in a $1 million judgment against Getty).
*Update: Getty has issued a statement saying it will defend itself “vigorously” on the grounds that Highsmith’s images are in the public domain. “Image libraries are legally permitted to charge fees for use of images in the public domain,” Getty said in the statement.
[Editor’s note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Highsmith was claiming damages for copyright infringement, rather than for DMCA violations.]
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