September 19, 2019

Natalie Holmes

Copyright, Ownership, and Artistic Integrity: The Quest for Vivian Maier’s True Heir

Vivian Maier 2013 show by Angelo Amboldi via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

David Deal first found out about Vivian Maier back in 2011, while he was still in law school. A former professional photographer, he was captivated both by Maier’s work and the discovery that she’d used the same camera as he once did: a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex. “I know how difficult it is to shoot with that camera and how skilled she must have been to get the photographs that she did,” says Deal of that initial encounter.

Vivian Maier 2011 exhibition by Thomas Leuthard via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The story of Vivian Maier is by now well-known. A prolific photographer living in Chicago, Maier worked as a full-time nanny to make ends meet while snapping shots of street life throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s - works which are today considered “among the most remarkable of the 20th century.”

Maier died in 2009 at the age of 83, leaving tens of thousands of undeveloped negatives, many of which were purchased blind at auction by John Maloof, who went on to print numerous photographs and arrange for their exhibition. The story was popularized by Maloof’s 2013 documentary, Finding Vivian Maier.

At first, Deal was fascinated by the story, doing his best to see as many of Maier’s photographs as possible and even attending the first exhibit of her work in New York City. “It didn’t occur to me until a little later that there was a potential legal problem with what the individuals who found her work were doing with it and what they were asserting,” he says.

It was only after he took an entry-level will, trusts, and estates course that Deal started scratching his head. “The owners of the negatives were asserting that they had the copyright and that it was transferred to them by heirs of the estate,” he explains. Probate law, however, dictates that for the copyright to be transferred, the heir must first be recognized by the probate court. “That still hasn’t happened,” he says.

So Deal hired a genealogist to dig deeper into Maier’s family tree, and in 2014 filed a petition to have several of the heirs he found recognized. The case is complicated by the fact that Maier had no obvious heirs - no spouse, siblings, aunts, uncles, or cousins, for example.

Deal’s team had to go up to the last possible level of heirs – great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles – and look at their descendants. “The further you go up the family tree, the wider it gets. There are around 15 great-aunts and uncles on the father’s side alone. It gets incredibly complex very quickly,” he says.

For several years, Deal’s claim meant that much of Maier’s work was removed from public view while the case was settled. And although a number of exhibitions are again showing her photographs, the probate case for the Maier estate remains open, with the court requiring additional information on the nine potential heirs as well as other members of the extended family, which number 171 in total, to either prove or disprove heirship.

Despite the delays and complexities, Deal remains committed to the cause as a matter of principle. “For me, it’s always been about the integrity of the artist’s work as well as the legal process. As a former photographer and now an attorney, the case combines two things I feel strongly about,” he says. He’s also keen to correct the perception that the individuals responsible for discovering Maier’s work and bringing it to light should somehow be entitled to a reward. “On paper it makes sense,” he concedes, “but legally it doesn’t. Intestacy laws – those in place to determine what happens to an estate when the decedent didn’t have a will – are quite imperfect, but they are remarkably fair considering the alternative, which would result in chaos.”

Vivian Maier 2013 show by Angelo Amboldi via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Here’s an example: John dies without a will. In the absence of intestacy law, anybody who had ever known or interacted with John would be able to claim entitlement to a part of his estate. His biking buddy might argue that he should get John’s bike, for instance. Instead, intestacy law says that in the absence of any other information, you simply work through the list of family members until a living heir is identified.

For the five heirs Deal now names among his clients, the case has had some pleasantly unexpected side-effects. Four of them live in Vienna and have struck up a friendship, united in their interest in the historical and intellectual aspects of the case, and Ms. Maier’s legacy in the art world.

The case is important to Deal in another way, too: It has helped educate the general public about the difference between physical ownership of an artwork and the copyright of that work. “This is a rare case of ownership and copyright becoming separated, and serves as a terrific example of the fact that the two are not the same.”   And though at this point he stands to make no financial gain from the endeavor, he’s determined to achieve a resolution. “I've made a commitment to my clients and myself that we’re going to see things through,” he says.

Natalie Holmes

Natalie is a resident writer and editor at Pixsy HQ. She contributes expert articles to the Pixsy Academy and also has a keen interest in telling stories from within the Pixsy community.

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