Most people know that copyright law applies to web content as well as traditional publications, but what if a reputable source is the culprit?
Most people know that copyright law applies to web content as well as traditional publications, but what if a reputable source is the culprit? That’s at the center of a $1-billion-dollar lawsuit filed by photographer Carol Highsmith against Getty Images.
Highsmith, a well-known and respected photographer, donated over 18,000 of her images to the Library of Congress with the provision that they be made available to the public for free. Her donation also stipulated that all of her future images would be donated, as well. Some of the legal wrangling will involve determining whether Highsmith has any copyright interest in the donated images, which she claims, or if the images are in the public domain, negating any copyrights.
Interestingly enough, though, Highsmith isn’t making a copyright violation claim against Getty. Rather, she’s invoking provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). The DCMA protects online intermediaries from liability if users upload content that violates copyrights. Otherwise, Yahoo, WordPress, GoDaddy, or any other hosting service could be subject to thousands of lawsuits where their customers have infringed on copyrights. But the DCMA also makes it illegal to remove or falsify copyright information or misrepresent oneself as the copyright holder. This is what Highsmith is alleging that Getty did with her images.
While this case goes deep into the woods of copyright law, it points out a couple of things that should interest any website owner or host.
First, it’s perfectly legal for a service to charge for content it provides—photos, in this case—even if it’s in the public domain. That’s because they’re offering a service by aggregating and cataloging the material. You can certainly track down and use public domain material on your own, but you can also use a service like Getty to do the work for you. Just don’t expect them to do it for free.
The second, less well-known thing this suit points out is that there are services that content providers use to crawl the web with robots looking for copyright violations. Getty even bought one called PicScout. When the service finds a potential violation, they notify their client who can then file a demand for payment and, if they choose, for damages. That’s how the Highsmith case got started—one of Getty’s subsidiaries tried to get her to pay for using her own images.
So, what’s the grand takeaway from all this? While the internet may seem like the Wild West of e-commerce and communication, there are still rules. And even if they seem easy to break, there are cyber-sheriffs and judges out there who are more than ready to string up outlaws from the highest tree, so be wary of how and where you get your content.
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