The "Bing Image Widget," released on Aug. 22, gives publishers the ability to create a panel on their websites that displays digital images supplied by Microsoft's Bing search engine, according to the lawsuit.
Rather than draw from a pool of licensed images, the lawsuit claimed, the product grants access to the billions of images that can be found online, without regard to whether the photos are copyrighted.
"In effect, defendant has turned the entirety of the world's online images into little more than a vast, unlicensed 'clip art' collection for the benefit of those website publishers who implement the Bing Image Widget, all without seeking permission from the owners of copyrights in those images," the lawsuit said.
Getty, which produces and distributes photos, video, music and multi-media products, is asking a judge in U.S. District Court to block the widget immediately and award an unspecified amount of damages. The actual injury to Getty is "incalculable," according to the lawsuit.
In a statement, a Microsoft spokeswoman said the company would consider whether Getty's claims had merit.
"As a copyright owner ourselves we think the laws in this area are important," the spokeswoman said in an email. "We'll take a close look at Getty's concerns."
John Lapham, general counsel for Getty, said his company has been engaged in discussions with Microsoft for more than a year about what he called the "erosion" of copyright protection for online images.
The widget, he said, goes well beyond a search tool by helping websites embed copyrighted images for commercial use. Getty's own embedding tool, by contrast, is only available for non-commercial websites and includes photographer attribution, he said.
"Now you have someone else's picture in full, beautiful display on your website, having never paid for it and with no attribution to the photographer at all," he said.
The widget is already in use by websites around the world, the lawsuit said. Getty owns or represents more than 80 million unique digital images, according to the lawsuit.
The case is Getty Images Inc v. Microsoft Corp, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 14-7114.
© Thomson Reuters 2014