Prominent photographer sues Getty for US$1b after copyright claim on her own image

A prominent photographer is suing photo agency Getty Images, after she was sent a letter accusing her of copyright infringement - for posting one of her own photos online.

Carol Highsmith, known for photographing scenes of America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and for donating her work to the Library of Congress, received the letter in December last year.

It was addressed to her This Is America foundation,

Sent by License Compliance Services - a firm believed to be associated with Getty- on behalf of British-based agency Alamy, the letter claimed that she was infringing copyright and asked for a US$120 (S$161) "settlement payment".

The letter inadvertently alerted Highsmith that Getty and Alamy had been charging people for the 18,755 photos that she had been donating copyright-free since as early as 1988, she claimed in the lawsuit filed on July 25 in New York. Highsmith is claiming US$1 billion in statutory copyright damages.

The lawsuit claims that the two agencies have been "unlawfully charging licensing fees" for Highsmith's photographs, and are "falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner".

The Los Angeles Times reported that Getty did not name Highsmith as the creator of the photos that it was selling, nor share the information that the photos were available for free elsewhere.

Getty, in a statement on July 28, said that the lawsuit is "based on a number of misconceptions", and that if those are not able to be cleared up, it "will defend ourselves vigorously".

It added on Monday (Aug 1) that "image libraries are legally permitted to charge fees for use of images in the public domain".