|Vivian Maier, self portrait New York c1950s
Vivian Maier appears to have two male heirs, both French and both first cousins once removed. One of these heirs, Sylvain Jaussaud, has transferred their rights to John Maloof, who was one of the first to discover Maier’s work and has since bought the majority of her negatives as well as helping to create a film which celebrates her work and its discovery.
The second heir was identified by a photographer/lawyer, David Deal, who believed that Maier’s legacy was being misappropriated and sought to track down any additional relatives who might have a claim. He convinced a second French cousin, Francis Baille, to seek legal heirship in the US courts with Deal as his legal representative.
As all Art and Artifice readers are no doubt aware, there is a fundamental distinction between a work and the copyright in a work. One does not necessarily go with the other. That said, in the UK, at least, if you inherit a work of art, the copyright is deemed to go with it unless there is a contrary intention expressed elsewhere in the will. It is this distinction that is causing the problem, Maloof is the lawful owner of many of the physical photographs and negatives but is not necessarily the owner of the copyright.
Whether or not Maloof is the owner depends on (1) the agreement which he struck with Jaussaud which sounds from the reports like it was a full assignment of rights, and (2) whether Baille has a claim to full or partial ownership of the rights in the photographs as well.
There is now a court case in Chicago to determine who owns the rights.
Unfortunately, whilst the case is working its way through the courts, it will be very difficult to see Maier’s photographs. The Cook County Public Administrator department reportedly sent letters to put all interested parties, including galleries exhibiting Maier’s work, on notice of the rights issue. Any dealing in the photographs is likely to be a challenge until this is resolved.
In the meantime, I have some queries for my US colleagues:
1 A particular quote from the New York Times article which has been circulating around the internet states that: “Under federal copyright law, owning a photograph’s negative or a print is distinct from owning the copyright itself. The copyright owner controls whether images can be reproduced and sold.” That is quite surprising. I can see that copyright could stop a reproduction (and by extension a sale following a reproduction) but how copyright can stop the sale of the photograph or negative itself. There is a clear distinction between the object and the copyright. But if only the object is sold and the copy (i.e. print) was made by Maier (the artist) what is to stop the resale?
2 My understanding is that until the photographs are registered, it is not possible to get statutory damages or legal fees for infringement of the photographs. Is that correct? If so, what will happen if the copyright in the photographs which have been registered by Maloof is found to be owned (or partially owned) by Baille?
Any light you can shed on this and the case in general would be much appreciated.
You can read much more about the background to this story in The New York Times (which takes a more Maloof friendly approach) and in The Independent (which is a bit more suspicious of Maloof's motives).