Getty Images Scam

Getty Images Is Using Fear, Ignorance and Empty Threats To Extort Millions

Have you ever used a picture you found on the internet?  Web designers, graphic artists, ad copy writers, obvious. What about school projects or bowling league web sites?

The internet is like the wild west.  It’s new, it’s huge and nobody really knows how to bridle its unyielding power (which is the whole point). Scams on the internet are as old as the internet (think emails from solicitors in Nigeria).

Legitimate, ethical profitable ideas co-exist with seedy scum sucking predators who prey on hopes and dreams. But what’s different about that?

You buy a website template, or hire a web designer to build a web site, and the presumption is that everything is legit. That everything displayed is yours.  But that’s not always the case.

Wouldn’t you think that if you’re able to download an image from Google with no watermark or copyright info that it’s okay to use?

There are ways to prevent people from downloading images, for instance by disabling the right-click function. But honestly if an image is displayed on your screen, you can get it, period.

So why is Getty Images a scam?

Literally hundreds of thousands of people have received demand letters from Getty seeking restitution for unlicensed use of their images, alleging copyright infringement.  Getty has bots that scour the internet searching for their images.  Bots are little applications or programs that read the encrypted data of the billions of images on the internet looking for a Getty signature.  The images are encrypted with code that identifies them.

Getty requires that you license their images in order to use them on a website.  The licenses have an expiration date.

Companies license the images, incorporate them into website templates or image inventories and sell them to consumers.

Getty has a copyright on their images and are entitled to charge for their use. No question about that. But the internet is nothing if not nebulus.

Consider this, Joe’s Garage hires Manny the Web Guy to build a website. Manny the Web Guy buys a template from Templates-r-us and buys a few images from Images-r-us. Both Templates-r-us and Images-r-us license photos from Getty Images.

Two years after the website goes live, Joe’s Garage receives a nasty letter from Getty Images demanding $2,000 because an image on their website has been identified as a Getty image and they threaten to sue for copyright infringement.

Apparently the template had part of a Getty image in it and even though Joe bought it in good faith, having no idea where it came from and the license expired which tagged his website.

You get a letter like that from an organization like that and how do you react? WTF would be appropriate.

But do you really need to be scared?

First off, Getty has hundreds of thousands of images available.  Some have watermarks or copyright notices but some don’t. Why? Technically, copyright notices have not been required since 1989, but that’s beside the point.

So Joe decides to call Getty and explain the situation.  The excessively rude lady on the other end of the phone does not listen to his story and threatens that their lawyers will pursue this matter to the fullest extent. Then she promptly hangs up on him.

Sounds scary right?

Well what’s the real deal?

The real deal is that Joe is guilty of infringement.  There are two kinds, copyright infringement and criminal copyright infringement.  We’re not worried about criminal, because Joe didn’t knowingly take the image, nor did he profit as a result.

 Getty doesn’t have to prove intent for copyright infringement, but they do have to prove damages.  There are Actual Damages and Profits, and Statutory Damages.

  Joe doesn’t sell anything online, he certainly didn’t sell the Getty image, so proving Actual Damages and Profits is going to be impossible.

Statutory Damages can be awarded however in an amount not less than $750 and not more than $30,000 for each infringement.

That sounds scary.  But it’s not that simple.  The infringement amount can also be reduced to $200 if the infringer can prove that they were completely unaware of the infringement.  Clearly Joe was unaware and so was Manny.  Common sense dictates that the vendor of the images should be the one with culpability.  But Getty doesn’t care about them. They only care about Joe and therein lies the scam.

Question: Do you believe that Getty would file a lawsuit against Joe knowing that they would only get $200?

Answer: Highly unlikely.

Getty sends out these frightening letters as a scare tactic hoping that the alleged infringer will cave in and settle.  Certainly they get a percentage of people that do, but there aren’t any cases this small that I’m aware of currently being pursued.  That’s why that lady was so rude on the phone.  She knows they’re not going to do anything about it so she continues with the scare tactic.

It’s a numbers game. If they send out 200,000 demand letters and only 1% settle times 2,000 that equals $4,000,000. Not bad.

It’s a legal scam. As mentioned earlier, the internet is so new and so widely used, how is the average Joe supposed to know whether or not an image is copyrighted, especially if there’s no visible copyright notice.

Even worse, how was Joe supposed to know that the image license expired? And why is Getty continuing to threaten Joe, but has no interest in the image vendor?

Scam. Legal, but a scam just the same.


5 thoughts on “Getty Images Scam

  1. SK Waller

    I received one of these letters yesterday concerning an image I found on a blog somewhere, several years go. It’s a tiny thing that I used as a link button. When I image-searched it I found it in use on four pages of websites. I don’t frighten easily and I immediately took the letter to be a scam. What do you suggest I do? Respond? Take the image down? Ignore the initial letter as well as the pile of letters I’m predicting will soon be arriving? Thanks for this article!

    1. reeljerc Post author

      Change the image and continue ignoring. It doesn’t make fiscal sense for them to prosecute. They have to establish damages.

    2. Laurel Archer

      I had the EXACT same situation – a small pic off Google that had no watermark or cost. And then two years later or so, Getty sends me this threatening letter with a time stamped picture that was supposedly theirs, and I did what I could do right away. I took it off my website, and I wrote them and told them this was unethical and I couldn’t pay them anything anyway.

      They have written me a couple of letters since and say that I am now slated for “escalation”. I guess I don’t need to worry about it, since they won’t pursue me? Or should I get a lawyer friend to talk to them, since I don’t want to talk to the rude lady at Getty?

      1. reeljerc Post author

        I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give you legal advice, but I can share my experience. We also had one small image they claimed was theirs, but who knew? Not like it was labelled.
        Anyway, we just ignored it and eventually the letters stopped. That was a couple years ago. Asking your lawyer friend to talk to them may only exacerbate the situation. As stated above, they have to prove damages.

  2. Real Life Consulting

    If you have dealt with Getty Image like our company has, you will know Getty employs never ending scared tactics to companies unaware of the law into submissions. Getty knows going after large companies take a long time and is very costly to do so and sometimes with fruitful results. Instead, Getty opts for small companies with no financial means to obtain an attorney by simply charge a low, but still a ridiculous amount (not market price;usually 10-100 times market price) for a single image. Check similar images with Getty and iStock (a company Getty own), you will find the 20X difference in price, one would wonder if Getty immediately moves the image in question from iStock to Getty right after PicScout (another company owned by Getty) finds a potential for profit image in question. Most of the time, you will find these companies are unaware of the image in question to be a violation of copyright, some simply linked the image for educational purposes.

    Getty created a company call Picscout an imaging scarping bot to do exactly that. Picscout generate millions in revenue yearly solely from their demand letter from small business alike. It is also rumored that Getty shares 50% of its revenue from Picscout. Instead resolving copyright infringement issue, Getty acts as judge, jury and executioner. Getty automatically calculates violation fines which far exceed any market price or court findings. To do so, Getty created an entire compliance department for the sole purpose of generating revenues. A bad business practice if Getty cannot rely on its main business to sustain.

    Do they follow the law? Sure they do! But! Getty tells you the law which benefits them without letting you know your rights. They simply treat a serious offender and innocent mistakes the same for the SOLE purpose of generating revenues.

    In our case, our Company is a health and workout product site focus on healthy living for our customers. With so much information out there, we look at YouTube for educational information to link to our site (both youtube and federal court findings allows linking in this nature). Now, if you have ever uploaded any videos onto YouTube, you know that people sometimes embed images into the video which under YouTube copyright the original Uploader is telling YouTube that they own the right. Therefore it would be perfectly ok for our site to link to. Now comes Getty………

    Dear Business Owner;

    By way of introduction, Getty Images is a leading global provider of digital media; our imagery is used by major newspapers, magazines, and in advertising campaigns around the globe. We represent over 200,000 artists, the largest community of photographers and filmmakers in the world. They rely on us to protect their livelihood, allowing them to thrive and produce future creative works.

    We have noticed imagery represented by Getty Images on your website, and, so far, we cannot locate an active license for this commercial use.

    Sounded perfectly legit, had we have done so knowingly or unknowingly. However, after our company have told them exactly what we have done and immediately took it down. Getty ignored the fact also federal court findings that linking is not a copyright infringement, violation and the pursuit with its demand for payment letter, suggesting a bigger trouble for our company if we do not comply. Following other company’s experience, we said okay give us proofs in writing so we in the case where if we complied that we are complying with something that is authentic.

    Getty being the largest imaging company that they think that their simple imaging link is their right to victory, what if I put that same exact image on my site and claim it as our own do we have the right to collect from them? No written proof was ever provided, not even a digital signature? So, why would our company want to pay this ridiculous claim?

    We also show them their own sub company iStock’s similar which costs 20X less than what they are asking of us. The feedback? Well, you did not buy it from iStock. Now why is that important? They are all your company with the same parent. Imaging when you buy a Chevy Tahoe at $40,000 dollars but when you want to buy a GMC Yukon, it will cost you $800,000 dollars. Is that right? I beg the differ.

    Finally, after many corresponds with Getty we realize this is never ending and Getty would never give-up. Perhaps their “Compliance Specialists” gets a commission for each payment? We then simply tell them, look, we’ve researched your questioned practice and would like to answer them all at once. Thanks to and attorney Michelen’s forum we were able to come out with the following:

    1. Sending us to collection agencies

    Our response would be:
    Please cease and decease all communications. No office visits.
    This is not a “debt collection” because it is not we do not owe you money.
    This is not a “settlement claim” because they have no claim without proof of ownership.
    These debt collectors cannot report my company or any personnel to a credit agency or do anything to harm my credit rating, because it is not a debt.

    2. Liability?

    Our response would be:
    Show us your ownership in writing first.

    3. Damages?

    Our response would be:
    If you cannot show predated US Copyright Office registration, you will not have grounds to automatically qualify in Federal court.

    4. if you say statutory damages, like attorneys fees and court costs?

    Our response would be:
    You only get that for registered images

    5. if you say our actual damages takes into consideration all the additional costs of enforcement?

    Our response would be:
    You have no proof how long these images were up and that their inflated rates are not what matters; the courts state that actual damages are what a person would pay in the MARKETPLACE for the image.

    6. if you know that courts often award damage multipliers in these cases, so that’s why we ask for these amounts

    Our response would be:
    Courts do not routinely give multipliers and almost exclusively award multipliers for registered works only

    Finally Getty told us:

    Had you been infringed on a iStock image than iStock pricing might be relevant. However, this isn’t the case here. I’m glad you’ve educated yourself on inexpensive ways to avoid claims like this in the future, but this doesn’t take care of the past unlicensed use of our Rights Managed content on your website.

    Let me tell you how this is going to work: My department is here to reach amicable resolutions in these matters. In your apparent online research about our pursuit of copyright infringement you have not likely come across this specific type of communication. You haven’t read about our willingness to accept low amounts like $249 (which we are willing to accept here for the specific type of use we found on your website). You’ve made it clear that you have no interest in reaching an amicable resolution with us. Our offer of $249 will be withdrawn. This case will not bet sent to NCS. You will be notified of the next steps.

    I won’t waste my or your time responding to any further e-mails from you that are not productive towards settlement.

    Sure, while iStock charges $12 dollars for similar images why would we pay $249 20 times over that of their similar images. As what we’ve mentioned, would you pay for a Yukon for $800,000 dollars? Getty is not trying to resolve any issue, Getty’s only interest is getting outrages money from law abiding companies unaware of the situation. These questionable practices are indeed in our mind extortion and scamming practices.


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