Carol Highsmith’s $1 Billion Getty Images Infringement Lawsuit Dies

Veteran photographer Carol Highsmith’s US$1 billion copyright claim against Getty Images, one of the highest profile infringement cases in recent years, has bitten the dust following a set of dismissals.

On 28 October 2016, all of the federal copyright claims filed by Highsmith were dismissed by presiding US District Court Judge, Jed S. Rakoff. No exact rationale for this decision was given, though the official record states “A memorandum explaining the reasons for these rulings will issue in due course.”

The sweeping dismissal still left a trio of local state law claims in play relating to ‘deceptive acts or practices.’ Specifically, Getty Images is being held to account for allegedly “charging licensing fees for Highsmith Photos when no license is needed, and by collecting settlements of copyright infringement claims for Highsmith Photos when it had no right to assert such claims.” Nonetheless Rakoff’s decision to throw out the federal infringement claims effectively kneecapped any chance Highsmith’s legal action had of getting a major result.

Those remaining state claims were settled upon by both parties, with the case finally being dismissed on 16 November 2016. Though the details of that settlement are closed, we’re going to take a wild guess that it wasn’t for US$1 billion.

Highsmith’s battle with Getty Images began back in July 2016, when she filed her case against the agency for what she perceived as a gross misuse of her work. Highsmith had discovered that Getty Images was charging for the use of her photographs as part of its subscription deals, and had even issued a copyright infringement claim against her using them herself.

What made this issue less cut and dry was that the 18,755 images of Highsmith’s that Getty had monetised were technically in the public domain. Since the late 1980’s Highsmith had spent almost 30 years contributing a vast amount of photographic content to the U.S Library of Congress. In an act which library director Ford Peatross described as “one of the greatest acts of generosity in the history of the Library,” Highsmith had allowed this staggering body of her work cataloguing American culture to be accessible to the general public.

It is likely that a series of arguments Getty Images presented in September had some effect in the judge’s decision. The defense team’s rebuttal to Highsmith’s claims of misuse was that publishers regularly profit on public domain works such as in the printing of Shakespeare plays in a comparably legal fashion. However, though some will be forced to agree with this line of reasoning, it it is unlikely that this final case result will bring much pleasure to the photography community at large, who saw this case as symbolic fight for the inherent ownership of a work by its original author.