Skip to main content

Famed photographer Highsmith sues Getty over alleged copyright infringement

Getty responds to $1B copyright infringement lawsuit by photog Highsmith

photographer sues getty 1 billion dollars version 1469682608 carol highsmith corvette
Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress
Photographer Carol Highsmith is known for her Americana-themed images, which she has captured in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Since 1988, she has been providing the images, free of charge, to the public through the Library of Congress. Unknown to her until recently, stock photo agency Getty Images had been selling her photos to paying clients while allegedly claiming exclusive copyright over them.

But now Getty says that Highsmith gave up her rights to file suit over any copyright when she donated the images to the public domain. On September 6, Getty asked the courts to dismiss the case, filed earlier this summer, because they claim that Highsmith can’t own the copyright to a public domain image. According to the stock photo agency, selling images that have a public domain license isn’t illegal — after all, book publishers sell copies of public domain classics like Shakespeare, the court documents argue.

Highsmith filed a lawsuit against the agency on July 25, alleging “gross misuse” of her photographs, according to PDNPulse. The suit asks for $1 billion in damages, an uncommonly high amount for a copyright case, but Highsmith cites a precedent in the case of Morel v. Getty, in which a photographer was awarded $1.2 million based on the misuse of a small number of photos. Highsmith alleges that Getty violated her copyright on more than 18,000 images.

While Highsmith provided the images to the Library of Congress for free, she apparently never released the copyright. She asked that the Library of Congress inform users of her images that she is the author, and that users give credit for each image used.

“The defendants have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people,” the claim states. “[They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees … but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.”

Getty believes Highsmith’s complaint is “based on a number of misconceptions,” according to a statement the company made on July 28. “The content in question has been part of the public domain for many years. It is standard practice for image libraries to distribute and provide access to public domain content, and it is important to note that distributing and providing access to public domain content is different to asserting copyright ownership of it.”

Somewhat ironically, Highsmith claims she only found out about Getty’s use of her images when she received a letter from License Compliance Services (LCS) on behalf of Alamy, a stock agency affiliated with Getty. The letter charged her with copyright violation for using one of her own photos online. According to Highsmith’s complaint, LCS has apparently sent similar letters to other users of her images who found them through the Library of Congress collection. She called the practice “brazen and extortionate.”

The truth may not be quite so dramatic, however. Getty clarified in its statement that “as soon as the plaintiff contacted LCS, LCS acted swiftly to cease its pursuit with respect to the image provided by Alamy and notified Alamy it would not pursue this content,” suggesting Highsmith’s complaint may be the result of a misunderstanding.

Updated on 09-12-2016 by Hillary Grigonis: Added information from Getty’s request to dismiss the case.

Updated 07-29-2016 by Daven Mathies: Added information from Getty’s statement and to clarify the roles of LCS and Alamy.

Editors' Recommendations

Daven Mathies
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Daven is a contributing writer to the photography section. He has been with Digital Trends since 2016 and has been writing…
Save 35% on this SanDisk 128GB SD card for a limited time
The 128GB version of the SanDisk Extreme Pro SD card, on a white background.

When you buy from camera deals, you should also purchase an SD card or two to make sure that you have ample storage for your photos and videos. Unfortunately, the costs will start racking up if you're also going to buy accessories, so you should be on the lookout for offers like this one from StackSocial -- the SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB for only $20, following a 35% discount on its original price of $31. That's $11 in savings on a dependable SD card, but you'll need to be quick in completing the transaction because there's no telling when the bargain ends.

Why you should buy the SanDisk Extreme Pro 128GB SD card
DSLR cameras and mirrorless cameras usually use SD cards as their storage devices, according to our guide on how to pick the right memory card for your digital camera. If you need one, the SanDisk Extreme Pro is an excellent choice because it offers shot speeds of up to 90 MB/s, which is perfect for recording 4K Ultra HD videos, photos in burst mode, and other types of content that will require a high-performance SD card to keep up with them.

Read more
How to transfer photos from an iPhone to a computer
The Apple iPhone 15 Plus's gallery app.

As the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you always have with you. If you're like most iPhone users, that means you've likely amassed a sizeable collection of photos on your device. However, while Apple's Photos app is a great way to manage and view your photo library, it's never a good idea to keep all your eggs in one basket. After all, suffering a lost or broken iPhone is painful enough without also losing all your precious digital memories in the process.

Even if you're backing up your iPhone to iCloud or your computer, it's a good idea to keep your photos backed up separately. After all, opening a folder or a photo management app is a much easier way to get at your photos than trying to extract them from an iCloud or iTunes/Finder backup, which requires either restoring them to another iPhone or relying on special software tools.

Read more
This Canon mirrorless camera deal cuts the price by $85
A Canon EOS R100 mirrorless camera on a white background.

For one of the best camera deals, check out the discount on the Canon EOS R100 mirrorless camera over at Walmart right now. Usually you’d have to pay $499 for the camera, but right now you can buy it for just $414, meaning you’re saving $85 off the regular price. The perfect time to treat yourself to a superior photography experience for less, here’s what you need to know before you commit to a purchase.

Why you should buy the Canon EOS R100 Mirrorless Camera
Ideal for anyone checking out the best mirrorless cameras but wanting to keep costs down, there’s a lot to love about the Canon EOS R100 Mirrorless Camera. It’s the smallest and lightest EOS R series camera while packing in plenty of features. It has excellent still-image capabilities with its 24.1 Megapixel APS-C size CMOS image sensor and DIGIC 8 processor. It also has Dual Pixel CMOS AF with the ability to detect human faces and focus on their eyes. Its sensor is significantly larger in size than many smartphones and can capture images with natural bokeh. It’s also able to take high-sensitivity and low-noise images which capture the atmosphere, even if you’re taking photos in low-light conditions.

Read more