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.


2 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.


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