The photo agency Getty Images has been sued for more than US$1 billion after demanding a photographer pay compensation for 'infringing' the copyright in her own work.

Photographer Carol Highsmith, who has made many thousands of her photographs available to the public through the US Library of Congress collections, says Getty is infringing her copyright by selling her photographs and charging others for their use. Highsmith learned what Getty was doing when she received a letter from a Getty-affiliated company demanding she pay US$120 in compensation for using one of her own photographs on a website for her non-profit group, the This is America! Foundation.

Highsmith claims Getty has not only unlawfully charged licence fees for the use of her photographs, but has held itself out as the copyright owner, including by falsely applying watermarks to her images. Although Highsmith makes her photographs available for public use, she says she never relinquished any ownership in their copyright.

Highsmith is claiming US$468 million in damages, and her lawyers argue the award should be tripled because Getty was on the losing side of another copyright judgment within the last three years. In 2013 a jury found Getty had wilfully infringed photos taken in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Getty Images is a US-based stock photo agency with an archive of more than 80 million still images. It has said in a statement it believes Highsmith's complaint is based on 'a number of misconceptions' which it hopes to rectify with her. 'If that is not possible, we will defend ourselves vigorously'.

It seems likely Getty will attempt to settle the matter with Highsmith. If the case does go to Court it could have interesting implications for how agencies like Getty treat photos they perceive to be in the public domain.