Photographer Vivian Maier posthumously emerged as an important and previously unknown American street photographer after the contents of her storage lockers were sold at auction in 2007.  The storage lockers contained negatives – many negatives.  But the identity of the photographer was not immediately known.  Maier was identified as the photographer shortly before she died in 2009, but it was only after her death, as prints of her photographs were published, exhibited and sold, did she receive acclaim.

But now, the question of who has the right to control her legacy is in dispute.  In August, Julia Gray wrote:

Today, the majority of Maier’s work — prints, Super-8 films and thousands of negatives — is owned by three men: Jeffrey Goldstein, John Maloof and Ron Slattery. Both Goldstein and Maloof have sold prints in limited editions through galleries.

Slattery only has the original prints and some negatives that he bought at the 2007 auction. Goldstein and Maloof have obtained a great deal more of Maier’s artistic output, as well as cameras and other personal items, from her estate. They both sell limited edition prints through galleries. Goldstein has also published a book of Maier’s photos, and Maloof is working on a documentary about her discovery and legacy, which will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Of course, the owner of a photographer’s negatives has only the right to the physical negatives, not the right to print, publish, or sell prints of the photographs, unless the photographer (or her artistic estate) either assigns or licenses those rights.  And there lies the problem.  Maier died within out leaving a will.  Since Maier died in Illinois, Illinois law applies, and under Illinois law, where a person dies without a will, her estate (including her copyrights in photographs and films) passes to her closest surviving family anywhere in the world.  If there is no family, then the estate escheats to the state.  That risk seems slight. The emerging dispute is a more familiar one – between several different distant relatives staking a claim.

Maier’s legacy will depend on resolution of two broad issues (which involve a mixture of law and fact) – (1) whether both claimants are equally close relations  to Maier (both are described as first cousins once removed, but the court will have to evaluate the relevant documentation), and (2) the extent of the rights Maier retained at the time of her death (there is a possibility, depending on the language of the agreements Maier signed with the storage locker company, that she may have assigned some or all of her rights in the items stored in the lockers upon default under the agreements – whether such an assignment extends to copyrights must be determined).

While Vivian Maier’s legacy as a photographer may be well established, what remains to be seen is who ultimately will be the stewards of that legacy.