The 10 Biggest Getty Images Lawsuits in Company History

American/British media company Getty Images maintains a massive library of stock images for use by individual consumers and businesses, but they’re not free. Controversies over its acquisition of free photos shared by artists and high charges for those using otherwise free media led to multiple lawsuits. Here are the ten biggest Getty Images lawsuits in company history that underscore business practices that some consider barely legal.

10. Zuma Press vs. Getty Images

Tech Dirt confirms that Zuma Press filed a lawsuit against Getty Images for selling images that were once the property of Zuma. In early 2016, Getty posted several thousand photos under licensing or ownership of Zuma.

Getty allegedly credited the authorship of the images to Les Walker instead of Zuma photographers. When Zuma became aware of the situation, they contacted Getty, which removed the photos upon request.

While it appeared that Getty Images violated copyright laws, the investigation into the cases revealed evidence that Zuma had collaborated on a collection of images with Les Walker in 2011.

Zuma learns a lesson about the fine points of copyright law

What appeared to be a breach of copyright law turned into a nightmare for Zuma Press. As it turns out, Walker sold the rights to the photo collection to Getty. Although Walker had signed a contract to grant a percentage of royalties to Zuma for using the photographs, Getty was unaware of the previous agreement.

Attorneys for the defendants showed that Getty committed no wrongdoing in using the images, although they were technically the property of Zuma. The courts ruled that the contract between Walker and Zuma gave Walker the right to assign image use to other agencies. Getty Images got off the hook, and Zuma learned a valuable lesson about mixing images with the intellectual property of other authors in collaborative collections.

9. CixxFive Concepts sues Getty Images over alleged RICO violations

The Dallas, Texas-based digital marketing company CixxFive Concepts filed a lawsuit against plaintiffs Getty Images, claiming that Getty committed RICO and Washington Consumer Protection Act violations, among others. CixxFive Concepts alleged that Getty claimed copyrights of public domain images fraudulently.

Getty further sold images that were free for public use, claiming the licensing for the digital media, then sending threatening letters to anyone who used them and didn’t pay the royalties.

CixxFive attempted to file a class-action lawsuit based on Getty Images’ rampant claims on thousands of public domain images, using deceptive techniques for financial gain that mislead consumers. Evidence showed that Getty maintains and sells images “clearly” fall into the realm of public domain.

Getty gets away with charging for images free on other sites

Its claims of ownership over the licensing is where Getty Images stands on shaky ground. While it’s not illegal to sell public domain images, claiming authorship could be considered illegal.

The legal system concludes that Getty cannot sue anyone for infringement if they use the images obtained from public domain sites. They can still sell them to anyone unaware that they can get the public domain images on other sites for free.

Getty has no legal right to sell copyright licenses for any images it obtains through the public domain. While not illegal, it is a questionable business practice that many companies and authors claim is not proper.

8. Art Capital sues Getty Images

Gawker confirms that Art Capital is suing Getty Images over a foiled deal the company made with Annie Leibovitz, the celebrity photographer. The plaintiff claims that Getty purposely attempted to undermine a deal that Art Capital Group had made with the photographer, to collect payments on a $24 million loan the company granted her to pay Conde Nast.

Art Capital Group held the photo archive as well as Leibovitz’s homes as collateral for the loan. The agreement gave Art Capital rights to sell current and future photos of the celebrity to make the loan payments.

Getty execs interfere with debt collection efforts in Liebovitz case

Art Capital claimed that Leibovitz did not comply with its efforts to sell the archived photos, forcing the company to sue her to secure payment for the sizable loan. Getty Images made an agreement with Leibovitz that appears to have violated the deal she had made with Art Capital.

Allegations that Getty executives pretended interest in purchasing the Leibovitz photo archive for achieving a competitive advantage over Art Capital, resulted in a judge making concessions to allow portions of the lawsuit against Getty to move forward.

Getty’s role is alleged to have cost Art Capital millions in foiled deals with Leibovitz, which would have helped to pay down her debt, which is going through the court’s system currently. The precise amount of the lawsuit is not yet known.

7. Getty Images vs. Microsoft

Vox reports that Getty Images filed a lawsuit against Microsoft, claiming that Getty committed copyright infringement against them on a “massive” scale. The federal suit filed in New York alleged that the Bing Image Widget, owned by Microsoft displayed photos that Getty owned copyrights for. Microsoft had not secured permission, nor made payment to Getty for use of the images.

Getty Images and Microsoft work out their differences

After filing the suit, Getty and Microsoft met to discuss the claims they had against one another, and came to an amicable agreement, each deciding to dismiss their legal claims and work together in a collaborative effort, in an agreement that was mutually beneficial to each.

6. Daniel Morel vs Getty Images

Image licensor Getty Images and Agence France Presse allegedly used photos taken by photographer Daniel Morel, depicting the Haiti Earthquake of 2010, and posted them for commercial sale without permission of the photographer. The photos were posted by the author on his Twitter page. Getty and the other company infringed on the author’s copyright, according to a federal judge in Manhattan court.

Getty gets held accountable for stealing images from the author

A judgment of $1.2 million in damages was awarded to Morel for the actions deemed as “willful” copyright infringement, according to IP Brief. This was one of the few times when Getty Images was held accountable for selling the copyrighted property of authors.

5. Getty Images sues Advernet, Inc.

Casetext confirms that Getty Images, Inc, filed a lawsuit against Advernet, Inc, previously known as VR Marketing, Inc, for claims that the company engaged in “unauthorized use” of images for which Getty owned the rights. The plaintiff requested dismissal of the lawsuit, however, the motion was denied in federal court. the case moved forward. After multiple delays, the defendant secured permission from the court to appear telephonically.

Getty goes on the defensive over image rights with Advernet

In June of 2006, a settlement in an undisclosed amount was reached by both parties, with Getty Images securing satisfaction for the unauthorized use of the images with the understanding reached in the release agreement, that the plaintiff could pursue other violations or infringements for unauthorized use if they occurred.

4. Shareholder Lawsuit against Getty Images

The Securities and Exchange Commission received complaints from shareholders that Getty Images, based in Seattle, Washington engaged in backdating to falsify “the date stock options [which} were granted to boost profit when the recipient cashes them in.”

Getty execs accused of SEC violations

This is a serious allegation that resulted in an internal investigation and SEC inquiry into the practices of the company. Additional allegations of selling stock with full knowledge of backdating and gross mismanagement of the company ignited the curiosity of the SEC. Although the plaintiffs asked for monetary damages, they modified the request by asking that assets be returned to the company and that illegal practices cease immediately. Defendants named in the lawsuit against Getty Images include Mark Getty, Chairman, Jonathan Kelin, chief Executive, Jeff Beyle, Senior VP, and several others. The charges amount to securities fraud and federal violations of the SEC.

3. Alfred Lopez, et al vs Gettty executives

Alfred Lopez filed a lawsuit against Getty Images in the Superior Court of King County in Washington State. He named the executives including Gurke, Beyle, Klein, Getty, and several others for a total of twenty defendants in allegations of backdating and unfair advantage on stock options for insiders.

Getty accused of backdating and insider selling

The plaintiff further claims that twelve of the defendants named in the suit committed illegal acts that profited them $5.4 million through insider information generated by backdating.

The lawsuit claims that millions in damages were sustained by the company as well as “loss of funds paid for the underpriced options,” extra tax liabilities, extra expenses for compensation, and more.

The allegations of insider selling of nearly four million shares of the stock of Getty Images racked up proceeds to the tune of over $217 million. Much of that total is the result of the illegal backdating of stock options.

When hit with the lawsuit, Getty Images launched an internal investigation into the practices of the executives and directors in charge of the handling and disposition of stock options. No further information is available until the investigations into the matters are complete.

2. Carol Highsmith sues Getty Images over selling her images and charging her for their use

Graphics Artists Guild reports that photographer Carol Highsmith took photographs, and donated them to the Library of Congress, allowing consumers to use them without charge.

She alleged that Almay and Getty Images used the public domain images she provided, and sold them on their websites, charging consumers for their use. When Carol used her images, photo stock agency Almay Limited sent her an invoice and demanded a payment of $120 for using the photos they claimed.

They also sent a threatening letter to her, asserting that her website used photos under their licensing. Since they were Highsmith’s images and she allowed consumers to use them through the public domain, she was outraged. PicScout is a Getty subsidiary and content tracking service. The company picked up on her use of her photos which Almay claimed.

They reported her for using licensed content. Digging deeper into the story, we discovered that Highsmith retained the copyright on the images. She asked that users give her credit for the photos without charging them usage fees.

The stock imaging agencies attempting to monetize her photos caused her outrage. After contacting the licensing Compliance Services, they dropped the charges, but she was far from finished with the situation.

She discovered that Almay and Getty did not consistently label her copyrighted images with due credit to the original author. The companies also altered the images. Such actions could result in findings of violations of copyright laws.

Getty breaks New York State laws with deceptive business practices

Highsmith’s suit asserts that Almay and Getty Images violated laws by “falsely presenting themselves as the copyright holders and threatened lawsuits they couldn’t pursue against people who lawfully used Highsmith’s public domain images.”

The case ended when a judge threw most of the charges out of court, only citing Getty for violating a few New York State laws involving deceptive business practices. In the end, Getty paid $1 million to settle the lawsuit.

1. Getty Images sues Stable Diffusion

Getty Images filed a lawsuit against Stable Diffusion, an AI image generator of $1.8 trillion. The case is one of the most expensive legal actions launched within the digital media industry.

According to the plaintiff, Stable Diffusion made claims of ownership on more than twelve million images, their metadata, and descriptions that Getty claims are under their copyright protection, according to Interesting Engineering.

Getty’s biggest lawsuit targets AI generator owners for copyright infringement

While Getty has been on the other end of the courtroom in multiple past lawsuits, they’ve aimed legal action at Stable Diffusion, alleging copyright infringement. Stable Diffusion used the images to train its AI image generator.

They further claim that the defendants displayed Getty watermarks on the copyrighted images that had distortions. The AI image creators use the available pictures to create new photos that do not precisely replicate the work of the original artists or authors. Getty believes that the open-source media company has moved in on their territory.

They’re requesting the court award them $150,000 in damages for each image it claims Stable Diffusion has “stolen.” The case is ongoing, and the outcome is not yet known.

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