What is believed to be the largest copyright infringement claim involving a South African artwork – R2.1bn for a photograph of former President Nelson Mandela – is again before the Gauteng High Court (Pretoria) and heading for a costly showdown with the state, says a City Press report.

The three-year-old case involves photographer Shaun Harris’ claims that his image of the statesman was used – criminally and without the correct copyright clearance from his then agents PictureNet – by the Government Communication Information System (GCIS).

GCIS, say the court papers, chose the image as the official photograph to be used at Mandela’s funeral, for which they bought some rights, but then also sent it out into the world for official use after removing Harris and PictureNet’s credits.

GCIS acting DG Phumla Williams denies the image was used unlawfully. ‘This case has gone to and fro and he has changed lawyers several times. We asked Harris repeatedly to prove his claims, which he never could,’ she said. However, a new preliminary forensic report PictureNet commissioned on the photograph’s use has re-ignited the case.

City Press says the 62-page forensic analysis paints a damning picture of GCIS’ use of the image, racking up at least 2.1m uses around the world, each penalised at R10 000 per infringement which amounts to the R2.1bn claim. Although the amount is astronomical, copyright experts told City Press that in the US, for example, such infringements each receive a $150 000 (R1.7m) penalty.

The report, which the newspaper says it has seen and surveyed, was sent to GCIS, but Williams said she hadn’t seen it and couldn’t comment in detail. ‘If there is now proof, then we will take it from there,’ she said.

Full City Press report