US District Court dismisses Carol Highsmith’s $1 billion copyright claim against Getty

Nov 23, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

US District Court dismisses Carol Highsmith’s $1 billion copyright claim against Getty

Nov 23, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Although some quite enjoyed the idea of seeing Getty get a good legal spanking for once, that is not how things are turning out. US District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff has dismissed all of Carol Highsmith’s federal copyright claims. After the dismissal on October 28th, he left three of Highsmith’s state law claims intact. Those, too, have now been voluntarily dismissed after Highsmith and Getty have reached an agreement to settle the case.

For those who missed it, Highsmith filed suit in July after she discovered that Getty had been charging fees to license images she had created without her consent. She only realised this after they attempted to bill her for the use of one of her own photographs and did a little digging. They had attempted to sell almost 19,000 images she had created.

Unfortunately, she kinda donated all of those images to the public domain. The only condition of which was that she was credited in the event of their use. Rather than straight up copyright infringement, Highsmith was claiming damages for violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Specifically, she charged Getty with violating DMCA provisions that make it illegal to remove, modify or falsify copyright management information.

But that’s not really how “Public Domain” works, erm, work. There’s no legal requirement to attribute the creator in public domain works. You’re still potentially liable for plagiarism issues, though, if you attempt to claim the work as your own, but you are not required to say who actually created it.

Getty’s argument was that as she had passed the images into the public domain in 1988, she had signed away her copyrights. Therefore, she had no grounds for making the DMCA claims. The judge in the case agreed, and dismissed all federal charges.

Getty also argued that it had done nothing illegal by offering copies of Highsmith’s images for license on its website. Which is true, public domain works are regularly commercialised. Just try to walk out of your local book store with a copy of a Dickens novel or Shakespeare play without paying.

The circumstances over the state law settlement were not disclosed.

In other news, perhaps Zuma Press will fare a little better in court, as they haven’t relinquished their images into the public domain.

Was this the result you expected? Or are you surprised by the announcement? Do you think Zuma Press will have better luck? Or will Getty find a way to worm out of that one, too? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

 

[via PDN Pulse]

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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4 responses to “US District Court dismisses Carol Highsmith’s $1 billion copyright claim against Getty”

  1. SB Avatar
    SB

    This case originally came about when the agency approached Highsmith threatening legal action if she didn’t pay for the license of one of her public domain images which she was using on her website.

    So the court things Highsmith has no grounds to sue since the images are public domain.

    Since the court acknowledged the images are Public Domain, doesn’t that mean that any agency threatening legal action against anyone using the image legally are therefore committing a crime? Sure, they can charge people to use the images if they want, but threatening people who are using the image legally – Isn’t that a criminal offence?

    Words that come to mind are fraud, extortion, baratry.

    1. Ralph Hightower Avatar
      Ralph Hightower

      Agree! Either the court looked at the case from the wrong direction, or Highsmith’s attorney didn’t present the case effectively. Getty was demanding payment from Highsmith that she created and placed in the public domain. Getty should not be charging Highsmith for the use of her own images.

      1. Rick Avatar
        Rick

        Getty should not be charging anyone for the use of the images.

  2. Stephen_Kosciesza Avatar
    Stephen_Kosciesza

    Walking out of a bookstore with a copy of Shakespeare without paying is hardly the same thing. Then, you’re taking a physical book that cost money to print and distribute. If I instead handwrite the complete works of William Shakespeare, copy it all out 1000 times and hand them out on a street corner, the bookstore has no claim. If I get Ms Highsmith’s images from Getty, then I’d expect to pay Getty. If I photograph one of her original works on display somewhere and put it all over the Internet, Getty shouldn’t have any valid complaint.