Saturday, July 11, 2015

Copyright in Tangles: The Vivan Maier Collection

In last year's Top Ten Cultural Heritage Stories, I highlighted the woes we are suffering due to outdated law and perverted interpretation. (See list item 5.) The crisis rears its head again, coming to my attention this week with a story about a photographer. It begins as wonderful story about a hidden talent discovered after the death of the artist. I offer you highlights from what I've read thus far as a base to consider some of the issues that must be resolved with copyright law as it now stands. 

Imagine this : perhaps the most important street photographer of the twentieth century was a nanny who kept everything to herself. Nobody had ever seen her work and she was a complete unknown until the time of her death. For decades Vivian’s work hid in the shadows until decades later (in 2007), historical hobbyist John Maloof bought a box full of never developed negatives at a local auction for $380. [Upshout]

I was intrigued. So I did a quick Google search to learn more. I learned that Maloof's interest in the work and life of the nanny photographer grew and he began doing some research.

Thanks to one of the families that Vivian nannied for in Chicago for seventeen years, John was able to acquire items in her two (packed) storage lockers of personal belongings that were going to be thrown in the garbage. Most of what was stuffed in these two units was a giant collection of various found objects such as crushed paint cans, railroad spikes and other tchotchkes, but sandwiched between the clutter, were hundreds of rolls of color film and fresh clues that would take the research into new directions. [Maier web site]

As an archivist, I was impressed by how a collection of Maier's work grew, with Maloof finding personal papers mixed in with the clutter. These papers led him to people who knew Maier from whom he pieced together a fuller picture of her life and her photography work. This work awakens the streets of mid-twentieth Chicago for the 21st century viewer.

[Maloof] spent years tending and promoting [Maier's] work through commercial galleries, museum exhibitions, books and a recent documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” that he helped direct. Mr. Maloof hired genealogists to find heirs to Maier in France and eventually paid an undisclosed amount for the rights to her work to a man named Sylvain Jaussaud, whom experts identified as her closest relative, a first cousin once removed.

This work seemed to be a labor of love, but I'm sure it was also lucrative with books written, exhibits held, and attention gathered. This is where the story takes a turn from something that seemed culturally worthwhile to something people began to question:

According to the New York Times an attorney named David Deal claimed that the "situation bothered him so he decided to do some research.  "[He] hired his own genealogists and last year traveled to Gap, an alpine town in southeastern France, home of Francis Baille, a retired civil servant whom he believes to be another first cousin once removed.

Mr. Baille, who had no idea he was related to Maier, agreed with Mr. Deal to seek to be recognized as her heir under American law. Reached on Friday by phone in France, Mr. Baille said, 'For now, I just do not want to talk about this.' But his French lawyer, Denis Compigne, said: 'It’s an extraordinary situation. You can imagine what it’s like to get a telephone call about someone who died that he never knew, with this precious legacy. He is very, very surprised.'

The legal case to determine whether Mr. Baille is Maier’s closest relative has now set in motion a process that Chicago officials say could take years and could result in Maier’s works’ being pulled from gallery inventories and museum shows until a determination is made.

 Many people have risen up to add their objections, to cite their own interests, to use Maier's photos in their own work, and to try to untangle the story of Vivian Maier and her archives. 

Some considerations:
- What is the true purpose of copyright?
- How can this law protect the right of creators while encouraging creativity and progress in future generations?
- How are we inspired by others' work and when do we cross the line into infringing on others' legitimate interests?   
- Is there one "right" answer?
- Is there a way to resolve copyright disputes more swiftly for the public interest, to keep up any momentum of innovation when it is needed?
"Copyright is such a convoluted arena, I don't think anyone really understands it." [The Heart of the Vivian Maier Project.]

To read more about Maier's life and work, and the controversy surrounding her photos see:
- Man Buys 10.000 Negatives At Local Auction. Discovers One of Most Important Street Photographers of Mid 20th Century. Upshout.
- Vivian Maier Web Site
- Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found and More. New York Times.
- The Heir's Not Apparent: A Legal Battle Over Vivan Maier's Work. New York Times
- Finding Vivian Maier
- The Heart of the Vivian Maier Project
- Vivian Maier's Fracture Archives

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