Known for demanding payment from unsuspecting web publishers, Getty Images was slapped with a lawsuit for “deceptive business practices.” Reuters

With its well-known penchant for saber rattling, Getty Images Inc. is not one to forgive and forget, but now one of its intended targets is turning the lens back on the stock-photo giant with an unforgiving lawsuit of its own, accusing Getty of unfair business practices.

The Seattle company, which owns and licenses a vast library of more than 80 million images, has long been infamous for its boilerplate “settlement demand letters,” routinely fired off to unsuspecting website owners it claims have used one or more of its photos without permission.

Rather than simply ask Web publishers to take down its images, the company informs alleged copyright infringers, in no uncertain terms, they are now required to pay a licensing fee for the image or images used -- sometimes to the tune of several hundred to thousands of dollars. All the while, Getty has remained unapologetic in the face of criticism from small-time Web publishers who label it a bully and an extortionist.

Now the company may have rattled its saber in the wrong direction. In a bit of karmic correspondence last month, Getty sent one of its letters to the Schneider Rothman IP Law Group, a Florida law firm that just happens to specialize in copyright litigation. Getty wanted a $380 licensing fee for a photo of a woman texting and driving, which Getty claimed was being used on the firm’s website without permission.

But the lawyers at IP Law Group had a different idea: Instead of paying the fee, they filed a legal complaint accusing Getty of “unfair and deceptive business practices.” The firm is seeking a court declaration that no infringement was committed and an injunction against Getty to stop it from demanding payment where no infringement exists.

In fact, IP Law Group claims it never displayed the Getty-owned image on its website. Rather, the texting-woman photo was syndicated through a plugin operated by Zemanta Inc., a software company that provides third-party content to Web publishers.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Joel B. Rothman, a partner at IP Law Group, said Getty should have done its due diligence before making accusatory claims. “You have to check,” he said. “You can’t just send out a letter, accuse somebody of infringing and demand money from them. You have to know that they did something that would entitle you to that money.”

To scour the Internet for unauthorized uses of its images, Getty uses image-tracking software created by PicScout, which Getty acquired in 2011. It’s a laborious task, but Rothman said Getty’s policing process has become so automated, the company is likely demanding money from countless website owners who have done nothing wrong -- and who may not have the legal wherewithal to fight back. He said the mere fact that an erroneous letter was sent to an experienced intellectual property lawyer should serve as a red flag.

“You can’t tell me that a human being at Getty is reviewing these things,” he said. “If they were, they would know better than to send a letter to me.”

A spokesperson for Getty Images admitted the letter was sent to IP Law Group in error, conceding it can be “very difficult” to know if an image is licensed through a third party. Had the company been made aware of the error, the spokesman said, it would have closed the matter at once.

“In this instance, [IP Law Group] never responded to the notices Getty Images issued and did not reach out to Getty Images to let us know that any use by them was licensed,” the spokesperson said in an email. “This is a good example of avoidable litigation.”

The spokesman said the claim against IP Law Group has since been closed. But just as Getty doesn’t accept “Sorry, we didn’t know” as a satisfactory response to its settlement letters, Rothman said he has no plans to accept that answer from Getty. “I’m not closing my case,” he said. “If I had sent a letter like the one they sent to me, the bar would have my license.”

Getty is well aware it has earned a reputation as an uncompromising bully, but it maintains its enforcement practices are necessary to “protect the intellectual property rights and creative process of artists and photographers” in the digital era. For its part, the company has made attempts in recent months to soften its image, including launching an embed tool in March that allows users to share its images with other platforms.

Rothman said he understands the challenges Getty and other copyright owners face in a copy-and-paste world. In fact, many of his clients are photographers who themselves are victims of copyright infringement. But he said being a victim of copyright doesn’t excuse making a victim of someone else.

“I’m not saying that Getty doesn’t have a basis in some cases, but they certainly have no infringement claim against my firm,” he said. “And they shouldn’t be using automated methods to take advantage of people who haven’t done anything wrong.”

Getty Image Rothman Complaint

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