Getty Images v. the Public Domain: Who Really Wins?

The public domain offers teachers, graphic designers, and anyone trying to design a website on a budget the opportunity to use millions upon millions of images without fear of infringing on the original author’s copyright. The images can be reused in their entirety or be remodeled into something new. They can be used for any sort of use whatsoever, whether that use is commercial or not. That is both the point and the beauty of the public domain. But what happens when pay-per-image stock photo sites take advantage of the public domain and start using the images in their own businesses? They get sued, of course. By people like photographer Carol Highsmith. Highsmith has spent the last 30 years taking and donating photos to the public domain. Her goal was to have her photographs, the majority of which are of places around the United States, available to use for free. Her intent to do so is clear on the Library of Congress website, where her photographs are officially listed as part of the public domain. So you can imagine Highsmith’s surprise when Getty Images sent her a take-down notice demanding a payment of $120 for the display of her own photograph on her own, personal website. Highsmith soon realized Getty had taken 18,755 of her public domain images and had licensed them through its website. Getty was essentially charging its consumers for something they could have easily gotten for free, if they had only reverse image searched their desired images. That search would have lead them to places like Wikimedia Commons, which hosts Highsmith’s photos for free and displays...