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.

12 thoughts on “Carol Highsmith, Getty Images, and Art as Commodity

  1. Speaking of capitalism-I do a lot of Kickstarters because games are fun and I like to support small game companies. So I pledged to support this one game from the UK that sounded fun. Unfortunately there was a problem with my card and it took me nearly a week to get it resolved. I got multiple emails from the creators demanding payment and I finally paid them.

    Several months later they sent out the items in the level I had pledged for but equally unfortunately I had to move and hadn’t had a chance to do forwarding on my mail yet. I emailed them to let them know what the new address was or see if it was possible to get the returned piece of mail sent to the new address and they were “oh well, sorry, not going to do anything. Now leave us alone.”

    They sent me a request today about their new Kickstarter. I told them due to their total lack of customer service I was not going to be supporting the new venture.

    We will see if they continue with the “you pay us, we don’t give you anything in return” policy.

    • When an individual or a small business does something like this, said person or business will usually be out of business. When a multi-billion-dollar company does it, one boycott or two means much less.

      • You stole my thought. That’s exactly true. And it isn’t just their size. The economic-political system won’t allow them to be harmed.

    • It could hurt a small company. I’m sure Getty Images will do just fine. In the end, they will probably have to pay about a million dollars and then they’ll get to right off most of that.

      • They claimed they sent it to the new address. Which isn’t true since I never gave it to them as they never asked for it.

        So they lied. What a shock.

        • The old saying “the customer is always right” does not mean what many people think. It means you have to treat them that way as long as you want them as customers. The bigger a company gets, the less a single customer matters. In this case, it doesn’t make sense, because it is a commodity — they would still make money. But I think most business people are idiots.

  2. @ Dave L: Exactly. Ford knew Pintos might blow up; the engineers recommended a $6 change per model to prevent that. Ford figured how many cars they might sell, what lawsuits would cost, and decided it was better to save the $6. And they’re still in business instead of the company put into receivership and all the executives jailed for premeditated murder. It’s bananas.

  3. I think we just need to be careful about talking ‘the last hundred years’, etc. In reality, fair dealing and caring about unrelated others is an historical aberration. For a time, maybe 100 years or so, these seemed to be on an uptick. Now they are declining again.

    The Pinto incident is business as usual. But I’ll bet Ford executives from the 30’s were even more amoral, not less, than execs from the 70’s and 80’s.

    What is new though is the insistence that there is something virtuous about being amoral. Even House Lannister at least pretends to be caring and kind. And the Nazis, unlike the Hutu zealots, at least had the decency to be ashamed (some of them anyway).

    We’d be safer if we simply executed all professors sympathetic to James Buchanan. Lower body count that way.

    • As far as I know the celebration — deification — of amorality is new. The robber barons were monsters, but they built libraries and parks. Maybe just so the peasants wouldn’t kill them. Ford sure didn’t pay workers better than the other car companies because he cared about them. He thought they were drooling idiots. But he was terrified of unions. He integrated his plants for the same reason; hoping that race hatred would prevent worker solidarity. He wasn’t wrong — Ford was the last of the big automakers to unionize.

      And of course back then most people got their news from newspapers. There were a TON of lefty newspapers. Some openly socialist papers were among the highest-circulation papers in the country. Which is why rich guys had thugs beat up the publishers, had corrupt judges imprison and even kill them.

      Maybe if rich people had owned all the media back then, they wouldn’t have had to bother with libraries and parks. Maybe not. A lot of them were fascinated by genetics (why am I so fabulous, why are my peasants such morons?) Eugenics was big, and the notion that learned traits could be genetically passed along. So many of them built schools and art museums in the belief it would make the plebes less stupid, and improve the gene pool. (Basically what “education reformers” believe today!)

    • It’s true. I don’t know if it is the effect of Ayn Rand or if she was just picking up on something in the air. But before her, the rich at least gave lip service to giving back. They seemed to understand that they were lucky. Today, that’s not true to a large chunk of the wealthy. Look at Trump’s claim to have suffered because of all the money he (supposedly) made.

      • I actually think the James Buchanan types have more direct responsibility for the current celebration of irresponsibility. That horrible man and others like him ran with the proposition that we cannot find a perfect measure of altruism and the public good, to the conclusion that altruism is always an act and that there can be no principled application of the concept of public good.

        Buchanan is more sophisticated than Rand, by far (the man could read more than two authors). And his sort of theory is more attractive to people who don’t start out as morally turbid.

        As to the trend generally – why you might even posit that personal kindness and responsibility co-vary with egalitarianism.

        • That could be. But my reading of history was that the Buchanan thinking was going away. And then you get people like Hayek and von Mises and they bring the ideas back. And Rand rides on top of that. To me, it was her way of saving fascism. I doubt she realized that was what she was doing. Her arrogance was astounding. She took a bedrock of the most simplistic understanding of Nietzsche and combined it with the thinking that was in the air. And her conclusion: there were only two philosophers of interest: Aristotle and her. Of course, she wasn’t a philosopher; she was a popularizer. And that’s why I think she was so important. But I’m guessing.

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