Photographer Files $1 Billion Lawsuit Against Getty Images for Copyright Infringement

Documentary photographer Carol Highsmith is suing Getty Images and Alamy for $1 billion for “gross misuse” of 18,755 of her photographs, Carey Dunne of Hyperallergic reports. Highsmith had previously donated all of her photographs to the Library of Congress so that the public could use her images without having to pay, but last December she discovered that the stock agencies were charging people for using her work. Highsmith only became aware of the issue after Getty Images sent her an e-mail demanding that she pay $120 for featuring one of her photographs on her website.

According to the lawsuit, Getty and Alamy allegedly attached a false watermark to Highsmith’s photographs and sold thousands of licenses. The complaint reads: “The defendants [Getty Images] have apparently misappropriated Ms. Highsmith’s generous gift to the American people. [They] are not only unlawfully charging licensing fees . . . but are falsely and fraudulently holding themselves out as the exclusive copyright owner.”

Highsmith, whose work has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post Magazine, has been documenting the fifty states through her This is America! Foundation—a nonprofit whose mission is to produce a visual study of the United States in the early twenty-first century—and since 1988 she has made tens of thousands of her images available to the public free of charge.

The lawsuit alleges that Getty and Alamy seriously damaged the photographer’s reputation. It also states: “The economic damage that Ms. Highsmith has suffered includes, without limitation, any and all revenue received by the defendants based on purported licenses sold for the Highsmith photos. These funds represent money that Ms. Highsmith could have received had she attempted to monetize her photos through the defendants.”

Highsmith is allowed to seek damages as high as $25,000 per photo. If she asks for the largest amount of damages for each violation she would receive nearly $500,000,000, but since Getty has been sued for copyright infringement within the last three years, Highsmith is able to ask for three times that amount.