Getty Images will return to US court to defend licensing public domain images, with accusations the stock agency fraudulently uses ‘deceptive techniques’ to ‘mislead’ customers into believing it owns copyright.
Meanwhile Visual China Group (VCG), the ‘Getty of China’, is in hot water with the People’s Republic for illegally licensing Chinese emblems, flags, business logos, and the now-famous black hole picture.
Getty accused of racketeering
Back in 2016 US photographer, Carol Highsmith, sued Getty for copyright infringement after she discovered her public domain images available for license.
Highsmith donated 18,000 images to the Library of Congress, which Getty then offered for sale in its archive without attribution to the photographer.
Highsmith discovered Getty licensing her photos after the stock agency sent her a threatening letter demanding payment when it found some of the images on her website!
Getty lawyers argued Highsmith ceded her copyright and had no standing, while it sold services such as cataloguing and presentation of images. The judge sided with Getty and threw the case out.
Now Texas digital marketing company, CixxFive Concepts, is taking legal action against Getty for ‘fraudulently claiming ownership of copyrights in public domain images’.
CixxFive has accused Getty of violating racketeering laws (RICO), which were originally drafted in 1970 to prosecute organised crime groups such as the Mafia. This is a different area of law to copyright.
The company recognises that Getty has every right to sell phony licenses for public domain images, as there are no restrictions for commercial usage. But CixxFive’s issue is that Getty aggressively asserts ownership of all image content, both public domain and non-public domain images.
‘One aspect of the deceptive nature of Getty’s and/or Getty US’s licensing scheme is that Getty and/or Getty US claims copyright on all of the content on its website. For example, the bottom of each page of its website states: “All contents © copyright 1999-2019 Getty Images. All rights reserved”,’ the lawsuit says.
‘Also, specific public domain images are overlaid on Getty and/or Getty US’s website with the © symbol followed by an entity or contributor name, indicating that the image is protected by copyright. The same © symbol and information is also provided next to the public domain image.’
CixxFive paid Getty US$438 for a one-month rights managed licence for a public domain image, and also bought another licence for a NASA image.
The lawsuit claims Getty has created ‘a hostile environment for lawful users of public domain images’. Highsmith may agree, after having Getty strongarm her for using her own images!
‘Getty and/or Getty US are thus deceiving customers into paying Getty and/or Getty US to contractually restrict the broad rights the customers already have to freely use the public domain images for which Getty and/or Getty US are selling copyright licenses, rather than customers paying to gain any rights or exclusive use of the public domain images, as Getty and/or Getty US purport to be selling.’
While it’s a slimy business practice to sell something which the original owner has gifted to society, perhaps it is also illegal!
VCG angers the PRC
The mighty People’s Republic of China has brought down an iron fist on VCG for illegally licensing photos of Chinese flags, emblems, business logos, and so on.
VCG is a Chinese stock agency, which distributes Getty’s archive in China. It acquired Corbis in 2016 and 500px in 2018.
The ‘illegal, rule-breaking practices’ were discovered after it emerged VCG was licensing the Black Hole image by Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration (EHT). The image was released for free but non-exclusive distribution under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Chinese people took to Weibo, the Twitter of China, calling out VCG ‘opportunistic business practices’. This includes the same tactic that has Getty accused of fraud – sending letters of demand for public domain images.
Closer scrutiny of VCG’s archive unearthed the other illegal practices – licensing images of emblems and other public domain photos.
VCG shares dropped by 10 percent in one day, and the VCG website has been taken offline. As of April 24 2019 it remains offline.
‘We have taken down all non-compliant photos and closed down the site voluntarily for a revamp in accordance with related laws,’ the company said in a statement.
China, with a reputation for not valuing intellectual property, appears to have dished out a swift punishment to VCG. Meanwhile Getty in the US continues to swindle customers into purchasing free public domain material thanks to a legal loophole.