Who owns the copyright to Vivian Maier’s street photography?

In Illinois, if a person dies without a will, their property goes to their closest living relatives. But if they literally have no living kin anywhere in the world, then the decedent’s property will ‘escheat’ to the State of Illinois. That rarely happens, though, because the law is written so that the property will go to the decedent’s relatives, even if they are very distant.”
Steven Dawson, a trusts and estates lawyer with Bryan Cave LLP, speaking to Gapers Block


UPDATE (9 Sept. 2014): A new possible heir has come forward in 2014 which may soon lead to lawsuits over the issue of Maier’s copyright.

We’ve written about Vivian Maier before (first all the way back in 2009), and you’ve probably read or seen much more. I just saw one of the traveling exhibitions of her work at Brandeis University outside Boston, and it’s well worth going to see her work in person, if you can. There’s a recently-released documentary (trailer above, IMDB) that seeks to get the bottom of just who this woman was. There may be a biopic in the works. There have been exhibitions and publications of her work all around the world. Two books have anthologized her photos: Vivian Maier: Street Photographer and Vivian Maier: Out of the Shadows.

All of these books and movies and exhibitions stem from three separate collections of Maier’s work bought at auction after her death. The larger and more well-known collection is John Maloof’s, but Jeffery Goldstein also controls a substantial number of images (here’s a piece on Lens about that collection. A third man, Ron Slattery, bought a smaller collection of negatives and prints in 2007, before Maier’s death, though I can’t find a link that collection. A forthcoming book, Vivian Maier’s Fractured Archive, tries to make sense of all of these different collections and the woman herself.

The question remains, however, of just who owns the copyright to these photos. Ordinarily, copyright of unpublished works with a known author stays in place for 70 years after the death of the creator. Maier died in 2009, which means her copyright belongs to her heirs until at least 2079. But because Maier left no will and had no known heirs, the ownership likely goes to the state of Illinois, where Maier died. As Chicago-area web publication Gapers Block reports, “First, the state could do nothing, which would allow the owners of her work to continue with their ventures. Second, if the state decides it is the rightful owner of Maier’s work, cease and desist letters will be sent to the current owners explaining the laws of succession, how the state is now the main beneficiary, and that any selling of her work needs to stop and all profits made would need to be paid to the state.”

Maier’s photographic legacy now is worth thousands, if not millions, of dollars, so the state and the stewards of the various Maier collections have a compelling interest to maintain and exercise their ownership of these materials. It will be interesting to see how this legal situation plays out over the coming years.

5 Responses to “Who owns the copyright to Vivian Maier’s street photography?”

  1. Blake

    You can find some of Slattery’s Maier photos on his found photo site: http://www.bighappyfunhouse.com. And according to him there are other collectors who own her work but haven’t yet come forward yet, though the three you mention here own the bulk of it. There may also be a distinction in copyright law between the Maloof and Goldstein publications which use her negatives to create modern prints, and Slattery’s strategy which basically leaves her photos in vintage state, similar to the huge number of found photo collections now circulating. The Banos book will probably help sort it all out.

    • M. Scott Brauer

      Thanks for the link, Blake! Your thinking sounds right to me. I did hear from Slattery after this article, and while he wouldn’t say much about the collection, seems like he’s waiting for things to shake out before really doing anything with his collection.

  2. Julia Gray

    Thanks for the shout-out.

    • M. Scott Brauer

      Thanks for writing your article, Julia. Definitely an interesting perspective on these photos and publications/exhibitions that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

  3. Matt

    The way I see it – if you own the negative then the image is your property and any royalties or copyrights associated with that image also belong to you.

    A photographic negative is a physical item so if you own it – it’s yours. Surely?

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