Getty and Public Domain Imagery

Getty Images has been sued, again, for selling images that are already within the public domain. You can read a brief synopsis on Fstoppers.com. The gist of it is:

The lawsuit alleges they have been licensing images that are already freely available to the public, as well as using “deceptive techniques” to convince potential buyers that Getty holds the image rights.

I thought I would go to their website and see how much they might be charging for such licenses, though I couldn’t think of a good search query akin to “show me the images you don’t actually have a right to sell”. Turns out they were more than willing to do the work for me.

The screen grab above is from www.gettyimages.com. The image on the left is a shameless, though perfectly legal, knock-off of Fan Ho’s iconic Hong Kong image. The third image from left is the even better known, Lunch Atop Skyscraper, originally published in the New York Herald-Tribune in 1932.

Lunch Atop Skyscraper , New York Herald-Tribune, 1932.

Lunch Atop Skyscraper, New York Herald-Tribune, 1932.

Interesting fact, though clearly advertised on Getty’s site, Lunch Atop Skyscraper is in the public domain. You can use the image for free, as I have here, or you can apparently pay Getty $499 to do the same thing. (It seems a bit odd that with something like 200 million assets in their archives they would feel that one of the best images they have available for marketing purposes is one they don’t actually hold the rights to.)

You have to wonder if there isn’t some legal argument to be made that places the onus back on them. If Getty’s assertion of copyright can’t be trusted, by their own design, then the burden shouldn’t fall on the public to determine which of the images they’re hawking they actually hold the copyright to and which they don’t. Shouldn’t we just be able to use any of the images from their site until they establish that they do, in fact, hold the copyright for that image?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of intellectual property rights and copyright protections. That’s the point. Getty shouldn’t be able to sell somebody else’s work, something they didn’t produce or buy the rights to, under false premises.

Brent Daniel