The recent controversy about Vivian Maier’s pictures brings forth a major issue that is often seen in legacy and estate related matters. Maier spent her life working as a nanny and kept her artistic life a secret. When she died in 2009, penniless and with no family, her pictures were discovered and declared to be one of the most remarkable pieces of art in the 20th century. Since her heir was unknown, it became quite a challenge for the courts to declare her heir.
Since there was no heir apparent, Maier’s images were being sold by people who came to own the negatives. They had no connection to her but still had access to prints of her work.
John Maloof, a former real estate agent bought tens of thousands of the negatives for a mere $400 and then spent years promoting her work in galleries, museums, exhibitions, books and a documentary. It is believed that Maloof paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to her work to Sylvain Jassaud who had been identified as her closest relative.
David C. Deal, a lawyer and a former commercial photographer took it upon himself to try and track down Maier’s heir. He hired his own genealogists and travelled to Maier’s home town in France. He was able to track down a Mr. Baille who was then recognized to be Maier’s heir under American law.
The exploitation of Maier’s work highlights a loophole in the legal system with respect to copyright infringement. Under federal copyright law, the copyright owner of an image controls whether these images are reproduced or sold. An individual can own a negative or a print but he still does not have the copyright to market/reproduce.
The way Maloof profited from Maier’s work seems completely unfair because he had no legal copyright to do so. Under the eyes of the law, Maloof (and other owners including Jeffery Goldstein) were breaking the law.
Estate cases like Maier’s area generally complicated because their relatives are not United States citizens. It may take years to find the rightful heir but with the right lawyers and the right legal representation, it can be done.
A similar legal battle has taken place over the literary rights to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The heirs have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court to stop the publication of new stories which have recently been commissioned and are expected to be out later this year. Doyle’s heirs argue that the characters have continued to develop throughout the course of all Holmes works and they are seeking copyright protection.
Copyright protection is thus a controversial aspect and can often result in legal battles that can continue for long periods of time.