As reported here and elsewhere, a UK removal company was recently sued by Getty Images for unauthorised use of a single image on its website. The company settled out of court, agreeing to pay Getty £1,951. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. The actual costs of this dispute are shockingly higher.
Punishment by Google
A substantial hidden cost turns out to be the potential for damage to the reputation of the company, a small family-based firm for whom integrity is an irreplaceable asset in a competitive market. Their representative would only speak about the subject on condition that neither he nor the company were explicitly named here. Google is the reason. If any customer or potential client were to Google the company name, reports of a court case might raise eyebrows : could this company really be trusted? That alone might sway them toward a competitor.
Unfortunately the cat is out of the bag. Reports of the case have proliferated wildly around the web, not least because so many other individuals and companies face Getty's allegations of infringement and threats of legal action. Still, not wishing to add further punishment by creating more Google fallout we will not mention the company by name, although it is who you think it is. We will call the spokesman Mr X. It's worth it, to hear what he has to say as a paid-up "victim" of Getty's infringement pursuit.
Mr X has no wish to stifle discussion and no argument with reporting of the case, quite the opposite. He thinks people need to understand exactly how much trouble infringement of copyright can land them in. He says that the legal costs of achieving the settlement amounted to around £24,000, a debilitating amount for a small company that now "has us all working twice as hard just to make up the loss". Had they not had access to a friend who was a barrister, had their legal team not fought so hard to challenge Getty's escalating claim, or had the case actually gone to trial "it could easily have been twice as much, or more".
Mr X doesn't know why his company was singled out for legal proceedings, "we just drew the lucky ticket". So far they are the only known instance of Getty following through on threats of legal action. The ingredients of his case are typical, involving a freelance web designer commissioned to produce a new company site. Among the company's own photos there was a gap for an image to convey to customers the security of adequate insurance. The designer found a smiley image of a mother and daughter somewhere on the web that he believed it was OK to use. Barely larger than a postage stamp on screen, this stayed in the published version when it went live as "everybody just forgot about it".
A few months later Picscout found it and a letter from Getty's lawyers arrived requiring payment of some £1,700.
Wisdom of the web
The company says it removed the image immediately and turned to their web designer for help. He looked around the forums and found many others in a similar dilemma. He also found vast amounts of conflicting opinion and advice, anger at what many described as extortion, and acrimony directed at Getty's "scam". It seemed to many that having taken down the offending image, Getty were on thin ice with their threats, that their claims were inflated beyond all reason, that no court could possibly impose such damages for what many asserted were minor, accidental infringements, or images supplied by others and used in good faith.
Mr X ploughed through all the debate in the Federation of Small Business (FSB) forum among other places. He found recommendations for a company called Limeone, who some users had paid to write to Getty's lawyers and no more had been heard. Many believed Limeone to be offering a sound legal strategy that was defeating Getty's claims, an impression that Limeone allegedly encouraged. Mr X paid up £165, Limeone sent a letter, and he believed that was an end to the matter, until the summons arrived.
At that point Mr X finally sought the opinion of specialist copyright lawyer Micheners, who were blunt : it was an infringement, Getty had a cast-iron case in law, and the best and only sensible course was to pay up. Since the case was now headed for the High Court, that meant reaching a settlement with Getty's lawyers to deflect the costs and risks of losing the case.
Which is what happened. Because by then Getty had hired barristers and prepared the case, the original £1,700 claim had become 5 figures. How much exactly? Mr X is hazy, pleading post traumatic stress. He says the entire management of the company can hardly bear to talk about the subject, and his boss flatly refuses to discuss the episode. But at that point their costs began to spiral. They too had to hire a barrister in case negotiation failed and the case went to trial. And that is where £24,000 went, on the legal fees of both sides.
So this single photo cost the company around £26,000 in total, for a photo that Mr X thinks Getty would have licensed for about £160. Like most people he knew little about copyright beforehand. He says the main reason things worked out so disastrously was reliance on "bad advice" so copiously available wherever the legalities of the Getty demands were being discussed.
Mr X now has some hard-won wisdom to offer others who find themselves on the receiving end of a Getty demand : "pay it now, or urgently get specialist legal advice". Once Getty get to Court "there is no limit to what Getty want to do to you". As a global business with vast resources and huge losses due to infringement, Getty are out to make a point, and you will likely end up footing the bill.
Mr X also advises against any course of action that might risk infringement. "Do not put anything on your site but your own images. Do not use anything found on the internet unless you have cast-iron permission. You would be better off paying a professional photographer to take images for you, just so you know whose material it is".
What of Limeone? Mr X was advised a case could be mounted against them for their part in the saga, but it turns out that the assurances allegedly given were purely verbal, over the phone. There is nothing on paper at all, save the letter that was sent to Getty and proved as useful as a chocolate teapot.
There is also the possibility of suing the web designer, whose inclusion of the photo sparked the trouble. "That's a 'would you sue your grandma?' question" says Mr X loyally. "He's not a big company, he can't afford it, he's one of us, we like him and we like his work, he just made a mistake. So no, we just want to put this down to experience and move on."
The 150-page FSB forum "Getty Corbis" topic wherein these matters have been discussed at such erroneous length, is now restricted to FSB members only. Wisely, the moderator has finally curtailed the mass public improvisation of copyright law, and now states in large bold type : "You are strongly advised to seek your own qualified legal advice on this matter." Better late than never, then, except for Mr X.
NB: Comments that mention the company by name will be deleted.