Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Getty Images' Scammy Image Licensing Shakedown

An interesting thing came across my desk at the start of the year. One of my first pieces of email was from a colleague in Germany emailing me in regard to a marketing-related legal problem. It seems that Getty Images had contacted them and claimed that we were using one of their images and that they didn't have any record of us having acquired the license to use it.

To start with, this was rather surprising because in all of the years that I've been using stock photography, I've never actually used Getty for stock images -- unless, perhaps, their images were subcontracted by some other agency. Or, perhaps, one of my vendors might have contracted with them. But personally, no interaction on my part.

Since the correspondence came from Germany, it took me a bit with Google translate to get to the root of the issue. Rather than walk you through the forensic work, let me summarize. Getty was hounding our German office for licensing on:
  • An image in a PDF of a brochure that was created in 2001, (Feb/March of 2001 from the metadata in the PDF file).
  • The image is basically a minor 1.75" x 2.75" image on the second page of the brochure
  • The content is a street in China, shot from traffic
  • The brochure was for a subsidiary company that is no longer an active business entity
  • The brochure lived on the web because our German web site was very slow in updating their web site
  • When the German web site was updated late last year by our Global operations team, the existing assets were migrated to the new site.
Now, you may not remember back to 2001, but as happens I remember this time well. This was back when George W. Bush was just starting his first term following the Supreme Court's Bush v Gore decision to give Presidency to him. This was before 9/11 and the twin towers of the World Trade Center came down. For me, this was several companies prior to my current job. As it turns out, that also holds true for the staff involved in producing this brochure.

Getty Images Scammy Shakedown Behavior
I should point out that the emphasis in the correspondence from Getty was on paying them. Again,
this is from Google Translate, but here's an excerpt from the email:
Please note that this matter is not done with the removal of the image material alone.
Even in the case of unintended use, the use of photographic material without a valid license is deemed to be copyright infringement pursuant to § 97 of the Copyright Act and related rights (UrhG). The purpose of this notification is to determine a previously acquired license or to achieve a fair settlement of the matter if no valid license is available.

Please complete the following steps within 14 days of the date of this message:

- If a valid license was obtained before using the artwork, please provide the Getty Images sales order, invoice number, or other license information. If the artwork is recorded on behalf of a third party, e.g. An advertising agency or a web designer, please notify us of the company name and ask the third party to contact us directly to check the existence of a valid license. As an end-user, it is ultimately your responsibility to clarify the facts.

-If you do not have a valid license for use, you will not be able to use the image material in the future
You need to set the current usage immediately
Remove footage from your site. You will also find an offer in the appendix
Compensation for the unlicensed use of the relevant image material. If the amount to be paid is not received within 14 days of receipt of this message, we will take further steps. Please note the information on the transfer in the attached offer. Payment can be made online by using the above URL and the access code.

Please note that we only charge the average license fee for the commercial use of licensed images, which is on your website. Getty Images, additional costs of EUR 300.00 per image have been incurred. We do not currently charge for these costs as we are aware that this unlicensed use of our image material may have been unintentional.

We would also be happy to help you find a consistent solution for the use of image material as soon as the amount has been paid.

As the world's leading provider of digital media, Getty Images strives to protect the interests, intellectual property rights and the livelihoods of photographers, filmmakers and other artists who entrust Getty Images with the licensing of their work. Getty Images hopes for a friendly settlement of the matter and is grateful for your cooperation.

Getty Images is aware that you may be hearing from our company for the first time. On our website (www.gettyimages.com) you can find out more about us and how to license and protect our images. We also provide information on copyright on our website. If you have any questions regarding this letter and the attached FAQs, please contact our Copyright Compliance Team at 0800 000 7228. We are very anxious to help you clarify this issue.

We look forward to hearing from you soon. In all correspondence, please always state the name of your company and the reference number, as indicated on the attached claims for damages. This information will help us to speed up the examination of the matter. Please note that we will initiate further legal action if you do not respond to this letter.

If you have any questions, or if this notification has been mistakenly notified, please contact us at 0800 000 7228 or e-mail us at: copyrightcomplianceDE@gettyimages.com.
My contacts in the industry tells me that part of the driver behind this Getty essentially outsources this licensing validation process like those debt collection agencies and selling debts.

Is it reasonable to expect you to retain proof of a licensing transaction from over 15 years ago?
I would say no. Frankly, I didn't actually think that that brochure was even available outside of an archive of old electronic files that I inherited when I joined the company. At the same time, most companies have document retention policies that would typically specify the destruction of many of these kinds of materials, so having proof of licensing for something this old would surprise me more than the latter.

Further, who's to say that rights to this image are only available through Getty. Is it possible that this image came from some other collection of images? Is Getty playing the -- this is a small enough issue that you won't devote the time and effort to validate the claim and just pay us? This aspect reminds me a lot of another Silicon Valley nightmare, the patent troll.

Based on all of this, I would highly recommend avoiding Getty Images. While the front end of their business may be legitimate, the tail of the beast shows some pretty scammy behavior. As they say, caveat emptor.

For the record, I should note that I have used (and licensed) stock photos from a variety of sources since the early 1990s. I value the stock photos and the work of the photographers that produced the images that communicate in our work.

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