In a new putative class action complaint, a Texas-based digital media marketing company accused Getty of fraudulently claiming ownership of copyrights in public domain images and selling fictitious copyright licenses for such images.

“Using a number of different deceptive techniques, [Getty] misleads its customers and potential customers into believing that it or one of its third-party contributors owns the copyright to all of the images available on its website, and that a license from [Getty] is required to use all of the images on its website,” according to the Washington federal court complaint. “In truth, anyone is free to use public domain images, without restriction, and by definition in a non-exclusive manner, without paying [Getty] or anyone else a penny.”

To further its deception, the defendant sends letters to users of the public domain images accusing them of copyright infringement, digital media marketing company CixxFive alleged, characterizing Getty’s conduct as “at a minimum, knowing and intentional,” or malicious in its violations of Washington’s Consumer Protection Act and the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Practices (RICO) Act, among other claims.

The stock photo company offers and sells licenses to public domain images, including White House press photographs, historical paintings and documents, and NASA images, the plaintiff told the court, providing examples from Getty’s website including a NASA photo the defendant requested payment of $475 for the right to use.

Getty doesn’t differentiate the pricing for the public domain images, leaving purchasers unable to realize they are paying for a picture that is free to use, the plaintiff said. The images feature an overlay of Getty’s copyright symbol and the agreement features the same licensing scheme as the copyrighted works, the plaintiff alleged, restricting how licensees may use the public domain work.

The defendant has intensified the problem with copyright infringement enforcement efforts such as demand letters seeking thousands of dollars in payment for the use of public domain images, CixxFive asserted. In one instance, Getty sent a demand letter to a photographer accusing her nonprofit foundation of copyright infringement based on the use of one of her own public domain images.

Seeking to certify a nationwide class action of those who entered into a license with Getty for a public domain image over the past four years, the plaintiff requested injunctive relief as well as monetary damages.

To read the complaint in CixxFive Concepts, LLC v. Getty Images, Inc., click here.

Why it matters: According to the plaintiff, Getty has engaged in an “egregious scheme” that duped visitors to its website by marketing images in the public domain as subject to its copyright ownership, selling fictitious copyright licenses that purport to limit a purchaser’s rights to the free-to-use images and then seeking to enforce the alleged copyright with demand letters.