Three weeks after a federal judge gutted photographer Carol Highsmith’s $1 billion copyright claim against Getty Images, the two sides have ended their dispute with a settlement of the remaining claims. The terms of the settlement, over minor state law claims, were not disclosed.
US District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff dismissed all of Highsmith’s federal copyright claims—which were the foundation of her lawsuit—on October 28. He left three of Highsmith’s state law claims intact, and said he would issue a written explanation of the ruling “in due course.” Instead, he signed a terse order of “voluntary dismissal” of the remaining claims on November 16, after Highsmith and Getty agreed to settle the case.
Highsmith filed suit in July, after discovering that Getty and its subsidiaries had been charging customers fees to license her images, without her consent. She alleged “gross misuse” and false attribution of 18,755 of her photographs of Americana. According to her claim, Getty and its subsidiaries were “falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner” of her images. (An example of one of those images, distributed by Alamy, a Getty affiliate, is shown above).
Highsmith was claiming damages not for copyright infringement per se, but for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Specifically, she charged Getty with violations of DMCA provisions that make it illegal to remove, modify or falsify copyright management information.
Getty countered that Highsmith’s images were in the public domain, and because she had donated the images to the Library of Congress and signed away her copyrights, she had no grounds for making her DMCA claims. (Highsmith donated her images to the Library of Congress in 1988).
Getty said it had done nothing illegal by offering copies of Highsmith’s image for license on its website. “Public domain works are routinely commercialized – e.g., publishers charge money for their copies of Dickens novels and Shakespeare plays, etc.,” the agency said in defending against Highsmith’s claims.
The court has said nothing about the merits of the arguments, but it was apparently persuaded by Getty’s argument to dismiss the federal claims. The state law claims that remained prior to the November 16 settlement were based upon New York state laws against “deceptive acts or practices” in the conduct of business.
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