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Ownership of famed photos is not black and white

When she died at age 73, her name was as unknown to the public as her black and white photographs of the people on the streets of Chicago. Today, Vivian Maier is widely hailed in the art world as a brilliant photographer and artist whose talents were unappreciated before her death in 2009.

Because she worked for decades as a nanny who kept her secret her life as a photographer, and apparently left no will, there is an ongoing legal dispute over who owns the rights to her tens of thousands of photos. That hasn't stopped a couple of collectors from exhibiting copies of her photos, however.

The images of street people have been shown in London, Paris, Milan, New York and many other places around the world, but the question is whether or not the collectors who purchased the black-and-whites after her death have the rights to exhibit or sell them.

Last month, the executor of her estate filed a lawsuit against a trio of galleries showing and selling Maier's photos. The executor argues that the collector who lent the pieces to the galleries might well own the copies of the photos, but does not hold the rights to show or sell them.

According to an article on Maier, she "died penniless and without known heirs." She is said to have spent about 40 years as a nanny in Chicago, spending her free time roaming streets and taking photos. Most of the images and negatives wound up in storage, hidden from everyone but the woman who created them.

After her death, a real estate developer and a collector bought up many of the prints and negatives. Their ownership rights might well be limited, however, as they did not purchase copyrights.

Those copyrights are in force for 70 years after an artist's death, so whoever courts eventually name as her heir stands to benefit enormously.

Had she known she would one day be hailed as an important artist, she likely would have taken steps to ensure protection of her images and legacy.

You can discuss with a Cocoa attorney ways in which will, trusts and other elements of estate planning protect your family and property.

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