Someone is likely to be profiting from your public domain content

When a creative – photographer, painter, writer, musician, whatever – puts their work into the public domain, and allows its free use, they’d be more than miffed to discover someone selling their work to others. But, by their own admission, this is what some image libraries do.

This practice has been brought out into the open as a result of extraordinary events surrounding the famed documentary photographer Carol Highsmith, reported by Hyperallergic. Back in 1988, Highsmith started to donate huge numbers of her photographs documenting the states of the USA to the Library of Congress. The Carol M Highsmith Collection is now featured as one of the most significant parts of the Library’s Prints & Photographs Division.

Carol Highmith’s photographs have been widely featured on stamps, in newspapers and magazines, and are administered through the non-profit This is America! Foundation.

She was therefore taken aback to receive a letter from Getty Images, one of the largest commercial image agencies, demanding payment of $120 for her use of one of her own images, which she had already placed in the public domain. She investigated, and discovered that Getty Images were happily selling ‘rights’ to use 18,755 of her photographs which are in the public domain.

Naturally, she is now taking legal action over this, and has filed a $1 billion copyright infringement suit against Getty Images, and Alamy, another agency who she claims has done the same thing with her photographs.

If that were not shocking enough, the response from Getty Images should make us all think again about copyright law, whatever the outcome of her lawsuit.

In its statement issued on 1 August 2016, Getty Images writes:
Image libraries, archives and other businesses have long collected and aggregated content in the public domain, investing significant sums of money, time and resources in indexing, archiving, digitizing and making that content searchable and easily available to people to make productive use of it.
Some of the services Getty Images provides its users in addition to the above are image search tools and research support to assist them in locating the right image for their needs. We provide a variety of delivery services for users, with images being delivered by API or RSS feed or other mechanisms that suit their specific workflow and requirements. Getty Images also provides customers with legal indemnities for the use of images.
Image libraries are legally permitted to charge fees for use of images in the public domain.

In other words, many of the images which are offered by Getty Images, and presumably other commercial image libraries, are actually free to use.

This begs the question as to how and why Getty Images came to write to Carol Highsmith demanding payment for use of an image over which they have no more rights than you or me.

In case you are in any doubt over what Getty Images thinks about its practices, its website asserts that:
We believe in ethical distribution practices. Our digital content products and services do not involve the usual CSR reporting issues around packaging, manufacturing supply chains and human rights for affiliated suppliers and workers. That said, we strive to treat all people, with respect. We know that what we do matters in the world, and that our images are trusted only so long as we hold ourselves to high ethical standards.

Just be very careful next time that you go anywhere near a commercial image library. Someone might rush up and demand payment for the air that you are breathing.