The complaint, filed in the High Court, alleges that JA Coles used a picture on its website called 'Mother with daughter (6-8) looking at each other and smiling' by Canadian photographer Larry Williams. Getty Images had a contract to market the image for Williams.
Getty Images said that it used an image tracking service to detect the unauthorised use of its images and found the photograph on JA Coles' website in late 2007.
Getty Images is seeking the payment of the commercial rate for the alleged use of the photo and compensation for the costs it has incurred.
The complaint also seeks compensation for "the insidious damage" caused by the alleged use. It says that misuse of its images erodes its ability to obtain full compensation for the use of its images and "makes it more difficult for Getty Images to obtain rights to images and to exploit such rights."
The company has not specified what sum it seeks because it says that it would need more information from JA Coles on the extent of the use of the image.
According to Getty Images, it wrote to JA Coles requesting a payment for the use of the image or proof of a valid licence. The image was removed from JA Coles' website, but it received no payment or explanation for the use, Getty Images said.
Spokeswoman Alison Crombie said that Getty Images has to protect its own interests and those of the photographers it represents.
"We are committed to protecting the intellectual property rights and livelihood of the artists whose work we license," said Crombie. "Some companies think that when they find images online, they are somehow in the 'public domain' and free to use. That is just not true," she said.
"Other companies sometimes also believe that when a third party, such as a web designer, supplies the images, it's only the third party's problem. But in the absence of a valid licence, the end user is ultimately responsible for the content it uses on their website," she said.
"Companies should protect themselves by asking their web designers for evidence that they have the rights to use all the images before launching the website. If such evidence had been presented by JA Coles, we would not be taking this matter to court," she said.
Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, is representing Getty Images in the action.