The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges that Amazon and at least 15 poster and picture stores violated copyright law by selling the digital images outright or allowing sales to occur through their sites. Corbis is seeking up to $150,000 for each work sold.
"The defendants do not have license or other authority to reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise copy or use the Corbis-represented images that are the subject of this action," Corbis' lawyers wrote in the complaint.
Corbis also accused the retailers of removing copy protection from the images in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Corbis, founded by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in 1989, has amassed the rights to millions of images by, among other things, striking deals with commercial photographers and photo journalists. The company licenses those images to publications, businesses and individuals.
The suit highlights the problems facing copyright owners in the digital age, particularly because it's so easy for people to offer unauthorized copies of copyrighted works over the Internet, whether they're photos, songs or music. The dispute also raises questions about how much responsibility an Internet company has for the transactions taking place through its site. The complaint accuses Amazon of vicarious infringement for allegedly allowing its "trusted retailers" to offer Corbis images through its site.
"Amazon has failed to effectively supervise and control the infringing conduct of the supplier defendants," the suit says.
Corbis has pursued several other Web site operators for allegedly selling its copyrighted works, but the case against Amazon represents the highest-profile suit so far.
Amazon did not immediately return calls for comment, but has reportedly taken down the disputed images.