‘Nelson Atkins Art Museum, Kansas City, Missouri’one of the images involved in the legal dispute [Photo: Carol M Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

The renowned American photographer claims Getty violated her rights for each of the 18,755 photos displayed on the Getty website.

The copyright action concerns photos that Highsmith donated to the Library of Congress in 1988.

The archive documents people and places throughout the US.

According to the lawsuit, the donation gave the public ‘the right to reproduce and display all the photographs at issue in this lawsuit, for free’.

Highsmith claims Getty Images was purporting to sell licences for thousands of her photographs on commercial websites.

The lawsuit, filed on 25 July at a United States District Court in New York, is seeking up to $1billion in copyright damages from Getty.

The mammoth figure is based on the outcome of a previous case (Morel v Getty), which allows the court to treble the maximum $468,875,000 statutory damages sought, according to Highsmith’s Dallas-based lawyers Carstens & Cahoon.

Photographer Carol M. Highsmith pauses between clicks of her Phase One 80-megapixel professional camera at the Santa Elena Canyon, deep in Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, Texas. A sheer rock wall in Mexico is to the left; one in the United States to the right.

Photographer Carol M Highsmith at Big Bend National Park in Brewster County, Texas [Photo: The Lyda Hill Texas Collection of Photographs in Carol M Highsmith’s America Project, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

The photographer, who lives in Maryland, says the matter came to her attention when she received a demand for payment for use of one of the images on her own website.

The lawsuit adds: ‘At no time did Ms Highsmith intend to abandon her rights in her photographs, including any rights of attribution or rights to control the terms of use for her photographs, nor was it ever her intent to enable third parties to purport to sell licenses for her photographs, or send threating [sic] letters to people who used her photos.’

In response, Getty Images denied asserting copyright over the images.

The Seattle-based library said in a statement: ‘We are reviewing the complaint. We believe it is based on a number of misconceptions, which we hope to rectify with the plaintiff as soon as possible. If that is not possible, we will defend ourselves vigorously.

‘The content in question has been part of the public domain for many years.

‘It is standard practice for image libraries to distribute and provide access to public domain content, and it is important to note that distributing and providing access to public domain content is different to asserting copyright ownership of it.’

Highsmith’s lawyers declined to comment on the ongoing litigation when contacted by Amateur Photographer.

Idaho farm

‘Idaho farm and field’ – another image from the Library of Congress archive. This image is not highlighted in the lawsuit and it is unclear if this is among the photos subject to legal dispute [Photo: Carol M Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]