Vivian Maier's work is in legal limbo

Last year the Chicago History Museum held an exhibition for the late Vivian Maier, the “Nanny Photographer”. Ms. Maier spent most of her life in Chicago working as a nanny for wealthy families. She took photographs all over the city and during her travels, in America and abroad.


Vivian Maier. (Chicago Tribune image)

Maeir died penniless and intestate. A treasure trove of her work was purchased through storage locker auctions by two men, John Maloof and Jerry Goldstein.

Maloof is a real estate agent and self proclaimed historian. He recognized the images for what they were, valuable art photography documenting an era. Goldstein is an artist who thought the same.

Ms. Maier’s work has been exhibited internationally. Prints are selling for thousands of dollars. John Maloof and Jerry Goldstein both thought they could copyright the work(s), as Ms. Maier died intestate.

Maloof made a half way attempt to track down living relatives in France. He found what he thought was the only surviving cousin and obtained permission to use and reproduce the works.

Unfortunately Maloof’s half way was not good enough. According to the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, legal action is being launched on behalf of another relative living in France.

David Deal, a copyright attorney and former commercial photographer, filed actions on behalf of the newly created estate of Vivian Maier. Like Maloof, he hired a genealogist who tracked down another living relative.

The actions and eventual case surround ownership rights to reproduce the images. The reproduction rights belong to the creator or estate, no matter who owns the negatives, images, or actual art work.

Copyright issues have been in the forefront of the news with lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, and Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) take down notices and actual take downs.

Photographers and other artists are fighting back against what they consider thievery of their work.


One of the F.B.I. warnings against copyright infringement. (F.B.I.)

Even the F.B.I. is involved in photography copyright issues. They gave photographers permission to use their warning labels on websites and other publications. This was formerly reserved for film and videos. There are criminal as well as civil penalties for copyright infringement.

If a settlement is not reached, Vivian Maier’s work will be put in storage, out of sight, for years. If the case(s) goes forward it may provide another landmark ruling on who owns copyright reproduction rights and the responsibilities of those who own the hard copy.

The case could also determine just how extensive due diligence investigation must be before ownership claims are made, especially in cases where people die intestate.

From comment sections in various articles, attorney Deal is being painted as a money grubbing lawyer, ambulance chaser, and other vulgar terms.

People do not recognize the importance of this case to photographers, artists, writers, and others who create work, or their potential heirs. They only see some attorney trying to make a score. In reality, he is trying to establish some precedent.

There could be untold numbers of talented people who created unknown works, passed away, and have their works published with no permission or compensation to potential heirs.

Who owns the rights to the great American novel, painting, photographs, videos, or other works  squirreled away by eccentric people and discovered after their deaths? What due diligence and how much due diligence is required before publishing and profiting from the works?

These are important legal issues that need to be addressed. That is what this case is about.



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