A federal court in Chicago has ruled that the Vivian Maier Estate can proceed with copyright infringement and other claims against defendant Jeffrey Goldstein, who allegedly sold prints, set up exhibitions and licensed Maier’s images without authorization.
The ruling came in response to a motion by Goldstein to dismiss the estate’s claims against him.
The estate filed the claims last spring, seeking unspecified damages and lost profits for copyright infringement, trademark infringement, and other alleged violations. Yesterday, the court rejected Goldstein’s motion to throw out any of the estate’s claims against him, clearing the way for a trial.
Maier died in 2009 without a will, without any known heirs, and also without any recognition as a photographer. The photographic prints, negatives and undeveloped film she left behind were discovered in a Chicago storage locker and sold to collectors after her death. Among the buyers was Goldstein, who began selling copies of Maier’s photographs on a website in 2010, and in galleries by 2012.
In 2014, the state of Illinois designated a state administrator to manage Maier’s estate. The administrator has been asserting control of Maier’s copyright ever since.
Goldstein asked the federal court to dismiss the estate’s copyright claim against him because he has a “rightful claim of ownership” to the Maier works, he says. He asserted that ownership because the works in dispute were “transferred before [Maier’s] death, making them not part of the estate.”
But the federal court kicked that argument to the curb: It said the transfer was after her death, but the timing was irrelevant anyway. The relevant issue, the court said, is that under federal copyright law, ownership of a physical copy of a work doesn’t convey ownership of any rights in the work. In other words, you can’t copy and distribute someone else’s creative work—whether it’s a photograph, book, recording or anything else—just because you possess a copy of it.
“Even if it were true that Goldstein bought certain Maier works prior to her death, ownership of those works would not entitle him to the copyright or provide a defense to infringement,” the court said. “Defendants [Goldstein] cite no authority to the contrary. Accordingly, plaintiff’s copyright claim will proceed.”
Goldstein also argued unsuccessfully that the federal court should throw out the claim because it interferes with the administration of an estate, and the disposal of a deceased person’s property. A so-called “probate exception” bars federal courts from getting involved in such cases because they fall under the jurisdiction of state courts, Goldstein argued.
But the federal court also rejected that argument, saying that the “probate exception” is extremely narrow. The copyright claim falls squarely and exclusively under federal court jurisdiction, outside the “probate exception,” and does not interfere with the (state) probate proceedings, the federal court said in its ruling.
A trial date for the estate’s claims has not been set.
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