Years ago, photographer Carol Highsmith gifted her photographs to the Library of Congress for its public use. But, as any savvy artist should do, she retained the copyrights to her works.  It then came as a surprise when she later received a letter from a Getty affiliated entity accusing her of copyright infringement for using one of her own photographs.  The letter demanded $120 to settle Highsmith’s “breach.”

Highsmith did some investigating and learned that Getty had been selling thousands of Highsmith’s photographs. The photographs had false watermarks and did not reference Highsmith.  Highsmith turned around and sued Getty for copyright infringement for the 18,755 of her images it is selling on its website.

The lawsuit for $1 billion, alleges that “[t]he 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.”

This is not the first time that Getty has been sued for copyright infringement. In 2013, a jury found that it had willfully infringed on Haiti earthquake photographs.  This prior willful infringement would likely increase the damages owed to Highsmith should this case go to trial.  Analysists expect this case to settle, but do not rule out the possibility that Getty may take this case to court in order to determine whether Highsmith’s photographs are in the public domain and change the rules for stock photo agencies using photos under similar circumstances..