When it comes to displaying someone else’s photos and clip art on your website, what’s the first name that comes to mind for most people in the know? Try “Getty Images.”

Getty Images, Inc. is a stock photo company that very aggressively enforces its licensing rights to million of images that it has acquired. With Getty Images we are talking big business – the company sold for about $3.5 Billion last year. It was co-founded by Mark Getty and Jonathan Klein.

If you’ve ever received a threatening letter from Getty Images demanding payment for the unauthorized use of one of their images, you know how it can disrupt your entire day, especially when they let you know it doesn’t matter you were unaware the photo was copyrighted. This type of copyright infringement is a matter of strict liability.

In 2008, Getty Images caused controversy for its pursuit of copyright enforcement on behalf of its photographers. Rather than pursue a policy of sending out “cease and desist” notices, Getty typically mails out a demand letter claiming substantial sums of damages to owners of websites which it believes are using their images in infringement of their photographers’ copyright. Getty commonly tries to intimidate website owners by sending collection agents, even though a demand letter cannot create a debt.

Here’s a “couldn’t happen to a better guy” story: In a lawsuit filed against Getty Images by Car-Freshener Corp., the maker of those tree-shaped air fresheners that hang from rear-view mirrors, Getty ended up paying $100,000  to settle the case. Getty had sold images that displayed those green air fresheners.  In his Courtroom Strategy blog, trial lawyer Oscar Michelen stated that: “Considering Getty is one of the biggest copyright trollers out there, sending out hundreds and hundreds of extortionate demand letters on a weekly basis, this payment had to stick in their craw. Nothing tastes as bad as a taste of your own medicine.”

Michelen went on to say: “Since 2005, Getty Images has been operating a huge copyright infringement program, sending out thousands upon thousands of letters a month to website owners who have used Getty Image thumbnails to decorate their website without paying Getty a license fee. The letters demand huge sums for use of the images and have panicked countless small businesses.”

“The spread of digital images and digital content and the ease with which it can be copied and re-used or even re-titled as one’s own, exposes all kinds of people and companies to infringement claims. But as Getty receives a taste of its own medicine, we should all be reminded to be careful of the use we make of other’s intellectual property. These claims and the litigation that comes with them can bring a small company to its knees.”

According to Win Singleton of Summit Web Design in a posting on RealTalk: “Many a website owner has been threatened with legal action for using their photos without paying for them… even if the photos are only thumbnails. And some site owners have had to pay for these photos after the fact at considerable expense – for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars – in order to settle the legal claims by these huge companies. You have just been lucky. This is really no different than pirating music instead of buying it in iTunes or elsewhere. These photographers deserve to be paid for their work and creativity, just like you in real estate.”

Make sure you check out the source of the images you plan to use on your website or blog. Just do not copy and paste an image onto your site. Obtain written permission when in doubt. There are sources for royalty-free photos such as http://www.shutterstock.com/

Finally, in a move that drew applause from art lovers around the world, the Getty Museum recently announced that, for the first time, it is releasing images of works of art in the public domain. “Today the Getty becomes an even more engaged digital citizen, one that shares its collections, research, and knowledge more openly than ever before. We’ve launched the Open Content Program to share, freely and without restriction, as many of the Getty’s digital resources as possible. The initial focus of the Open Content Program is to make available all images of public domain artworks in the Getty’s collections. Today we’ve taken a first step toward this goal by making roughly 4,600 high-resolution images of the Museum’s collection free to use, modify, and publish for any purpose.”

Now, if only the Getty Museum can convince Getty Images, Inc to ease up a bit on its image trolling, we would all be happy campers.