Legal Battle Rages Over Rights to Street Photos

CHICAGO (CN) – The estate of street photographer Vivian Maier claims a Chicago art collector abused its copyright to acclaimed photographs taken by the “Northshore nanny,” opening another front in the fierce battle over who owns the right to print her work.

Vivian Maier was an American street photographer who died in 2009 in complete anonymity. Her stunning photographs were discovered only after three collectors bought her negatives at an auction of a storage unit on which she had failed to keep up payments.

Her work features mainly images of New York and Chicago street life, but she also took photos of Manila, Bangkok, Shanghai, India, Syria, Egypt and Italy on a self-financed trip around the world.

For most of her life, Maier worked as a nanny for affluent Northside Chicago families, taking photos on her free time and showing them to no one. One of the children she helped raise described her as a “real, live Mary Poppins.”

The discovery of her photographs created a very unusual probate situation, where the penniless estate owns the copyrights to Maier’s work but others legally own the film itself. In addition, the courts have still not decided who Maier’s rightful heir is.

Last year, a Cook County judge approved a settlement in a long-running dispute between the estate and collector John Maloof, who owns 90 percent of Maier’s negatives.

On Thursday, Maier’s estate sued Jeffrey Goldstein, a Chicago art collector who once owned the second-most Maier negatives. In 2014, he sold his collection of approximately 17,500 negatives to a gallery in Toronto.

According to the estate, Goldstein registered the name “Vivian Maier Prints,” and operates the website vivianmaierprints.com without permission. The website was not operational as of Friday morning.

“Defendants’ infringing activities deceived the public and caused injury to the estate, with the goal of illegally profiting from the unauthorized exploitation of the estate’s copyrighted material and establishing a false and misleading association between defendants and the estate,” the complaint states. “By using the estate’s trademark and personal name to deceive consumers about the legitimacy and authorization of the products they offered, defendants engaged in blatant deception.”

The estate seeks a court order for the impoundment of all Maier works in Goldstein’s possession and an injunction preventing his use of her name in any way. It is represented by James E. Griffith with Marshall, Gerstin & Borun in Chicago.

Goldstein could not be reached for comment.

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