Carol Highsmith, Getty Images, and Art as Commodity

Bale Grist Mill - Carol Highsmith

Regular readers know that I’m not too keen on modern copyright law. Actually, I’m not that keen on copyright law at all. There are other ways to pay creative workers. But I would go along with a copyright system that gave the creator ten or even twenty years of protection. But the 95 years we now have is ridiculous. And that’s just until 2023 when Mickey Mouse goes into the public domain. I’ll bet that yet again copyright will be extended for that vile little rodent. But copyright is even more bizarre than you likely know as can be seen in the case of Carol Highsmith.

Carol Highsmith is a photographer. She travels the United States taking photos and then gifts them to the Library of Congress and, by extension, the world, because they are placed in the public domain. That is why I can display the gorgeous image of the Bale Grist Mill above. Carol Highsmith took the photo and then gave it to the Library of Congress. It belows to the world. All of us can enjoy and use it for free. Well, we can if we know where to look. If we don’t, there are rat bastards who will sell it to us.

Carol Highsmith Is Not Pleased

On Friday, Michael Hiltzik reported, Photographer Sues Getty Images for $1 Billion after She’s Billed for Her Own Photo. It seems that after Carol Highsmith used one of her own images — you know, one she put in the public domain — Getty Images sent her a bill for $120 for using it. How can this be? Well, Getty Images takes public domain images and sells them. Well, that’s not quite the right word. According to the company, it charges a fee for distributing the photos.

Getty Images will, for example, sell you the rights to use Dorothea Lange’s most famous photo from the Great Depression. Buy it now! I entered some data, claiming that I wanted to use it for a magazine cover, and Getty image offered to sell distribute it to me for a mere $10,335. It must be an awfully heavy photograph to require that kind of distribution fee!

High Prices for “Distribution”

Getty Images will “distribute” the Bale Grist Mill image above too. Or they would. They’ve taken down the page for buying it. I assume that’s because, you know, Carol Highsmith is suing them for a billion dollars. But we know that they used to sell it because Google knows all. Plus, they haven’t taken down their watermarked image, which I reproduce here under the clearest case imaginable of Fair Use:

Bale Grist Mill - Getty Image Watermark

This is what happens in the society that values commodity above all else. It also shows that the problem is not just copyright and other intellectual property rights. After all, when Martin Shkreli raised the price of Daraprim, it wasn’t patent protected. We have, rather, a bigger issue regarding capitalism itself. Capitalism worked so long as people knew each other — as long as the seller understood that raising the price of a drug over 5,000% would cause their neighbors to die.

Capitalists of the last hundred years have convinced themselves that acting like psychopaths is actually good — creative destruction and all that nonsense. There are no more norms. If a business can do it, the business will do it. But outside the business world, things are different. Carol Highsmith gives away her work. And Getty Images takes them and sells distributes them. They add no value. They just prey on the ignorance of customers.