Can Man Who Found Long Lost Ansel Adams Glass Negatives Sell Prints?

from the copyright-conundrum dept

Reader Ken points us to a "feel good" story of a guy, Rick Norsigian, who found a box of old glass negatives at a garage sale in 2000, which he bought for $45 (bargained down from the $70 the other guy wanted). It turns out that a bunch of experts have now agreed that the negatives are actually previously unpublished works by Ansel Adams. Most of the article focuses on how Norsigian got the negatives, why the experts seem pretty convinced the negatives are from Adams and even how the negatives might have ended up in Southern California. However, right at the beginning, the article says the negatives "may be worth $200 million." Oddly, this isn't elaborated on until the end, when they claim that sales of prints from those negatives could net Norsigian $200 million:
It could be a while before he sees the profits from the sale of prints from the negatives, but Streets estimates over the next 25 years it could mean over $200 million for Norsigian.
Ken wondered about that statement, since there may be some copyright issues here, and as far as I can tell, he's right. I can't see how Norsigian has any legal right to sell the prints at all -- though, perhaps some copyright scholars could chime in. The works are estimated to have been made in the 1920s, which could actually complicate things. However, from all of the indications, none of these works were "published," and as the handy dandy public domain tracker notifies us, unpublished works are given a copyright of "life of the author +70 years." Ansel Adams died in 1984, so it would appear that the copyright on the images would likely belong to his heirs, and will last until 2054.

Now, if the works were published (which seems unlikely) then it gets a bit complicated. If they were done before 1923 (and no one's exactly sure of the date on most of these negatives), then they're in the public domain. If they were done after 1923 and weren't registered at the Copyright Office then, again, they're in the public domain. If that's the case, then Norsigian actually could make prints, but once those prints were out there, others could most likely copy the prints and sell competing prints themselves legally, which could put a damper on the $200 million. Of course, there then could be things Norsigian could do, such as specially "branding" his prints in some manner, but it's a bit trickier.

If the works were published after 1923, registered at the Copyright Office and had that registration renewed, then they should retain the initial copyright until 95 years after publication, meaning, until at least 2018 (and, again, most likely remaining with Adams' heirs). But, if that were the case, it seems unlikely that these negatives would have been considered "lost," though it is possible.

And, for those of you wondering, no, owning the negatives does not give you the copyright on the images, even if that creates a weird situation where someone who owns a bunch of negatives might not legally be able to use those negatives (yay, copyright law!).

The most likely scenario remains the first one, which would suggest Norsigian might actually get into legal trouble for making prints. And, in fact, the managing director of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Bill Turnage, first says that Norsigian's claims are a "fraud" and he's actually considering suing over Norsigian's use of Ansel Adams' name for commercial purposes (the article claims "copyrighted name," but I believe the AP reporter gets that wrong -- at best there may be a publicity rights claim under California state law). Of course, that puts another twist on the situation as well. If the Adams' heirs deny the prints are Adams, but they've been authenticated as Adams', then could the Adams' heirs still then make a copyright claim on any prints? That could be fun.

Of course, Adams himself, were he alive, might find the whole debate amusing. As the article notes (and which is well known among followers of Adams):
"Ansel interpreted the negative very heavily. He believed the negative was like a musical score. No two composers will interpret it the same way," he said. "Each print is a work of art."
In other words, if Norsigian does make prints, they wouldn't be considered the same thing as a true Ansel Adams print. It might be more like a high school orchestra performing Beethoven.

Still, from a copyright perspective, there may be a very interesting legal battle brewing...


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 2:47pm

    I believe (I could be wrong) the $200 Million estimate comes from the value of the negatives themselves, not the selling of the prints. Just like an original Picasso vs. a reproduction. I wouldn't think copyright would enter into it. It's the physical object that is of value not just the image itself.

    Am I wrong?

     

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    jjmsan (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 2:52pm

    Composites

    "Ansel interpreted the negative very heavily." What the reporters are dancing around is that Adams prints were made from many different negatives. So the negatives themselves are not the same as his prints.

     

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  3.  
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    crade (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 2:57pm

    Re:

    According to the article the 200M is estimated to be obtainable from the sale of prints made from the negatives.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:06pm

    Definitely not going to sell $200 million worth of prints. I agree with #1 above. Some collector out there would pay top dollar to grab these I'm sure, and there's nothing anyone in the family can do about it. They will, I'm sure, sue if he starts selling prints, and saving lawyers fees (and the risk of losing) is another good reason to just sell the originals and be happy with the return on his initial investment.

     

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    thejamesingram (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:11pm

    OR he could just negotiate with the Adams heirs to sell the negatives to them, giving them control over the material in exchange for a hefty sum. The guy gets his money and the family of Ansel Adams gets creative control over unpublished negatives.

     

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  6.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:14pm

    Re:

    I believe (I could be wrong) the $200 Million estimate comes from the value of the negatives themselves, not the selling of the prints. Just like an original Picasso vs. a reproduction. I wouldn't think copyright would enter into it. It's the physical object that is of value not just the image itself.

    Am I wrong?


    That's what I thought at first too, but the article claims otherwise, in that part of the article I quoted above. It's entirely possible the article is wrong... but I'm not sure anyone would actually spend $200 million on negatives they couldn't print...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:21pm

    then it brings up again, the right of passage, no copyrights should be passed on to heirs are corporations, copyright should end, say for safety, 5 years after death of the artist, not life plus 70/95/eternity like now

    they had nothing substantial to do with him producing/taking those negatives, they should have no claim over it, entitlement is going crazy and will destroy us

     

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  8.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:22pm

    What if Adams actually sold those negatives to the guy, wouldn't he get the copyrights, instead?

     

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  9.  
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    crade (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:34pm

    Re:

    How would you get a hefty sum? Your in a pretty bad spot to negotiate I think, you can either sell to them for their lowball offer, hang onto them and get nothing or sell them to someone else who can't legally make prints from them either.

     

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  10.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:52pm

    The person who now owns the prints is the only one with the PHYSICAL ability to make copies. The heirs to the copyright are (presumably) the only ones with the LEGAL ability to make copies. If copies are worth millions, it is in BOTH parties interest to sell them back to the copyright holder. The incentive to bargain is that they need to work together to get millions.

     

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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 3:57pm

    Re: Re:

    but I'm not sure anyone would actually spend $200 million on negatives they couldn't print...

    Maybe not, but I'm sure they'd still be worth a lot to a wealthy collector, of which I'm sure Adams has quite a few. I'm not sure why the reporter thinks the prints would be worth that much, but I'd say the lost negatives are worth far more.

     

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    Karl (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 4:15pm

    Re: Re:

    Option #3 would still net you a lot of money. Not $200 million, probably, but still a lot.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 4:20pm

    Somebody please contact Mr. Ansel Adams through a ghost whisperer so he can get paid or sue from the grave.

     

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    Paddy Duke (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 4:59pm

    If the Adams' heirs deny the prints are Adams, but they've been authenticated as Adams', then could the Adams' heirs still then make a copyright claim on any prints? That could be fun.
    While they might not have a valid copyright claim, surely in that case they could approach the issue as trademark infringement?

     

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  15.  
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    Jeff (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 5:41pm

    Mike - please come clean my monitor off!

    My head just exploded... This is where the f***'d up copyright law in the US has gotten us. The original artist passed away 26 years ago... This shouldn't be an issue, but yet... here we are! What an amazing crock of shit! Years ago I remember reading an SF story about how generations of lawyers keep lawsuits going long after the originators and their heirs have died... Illustrating the exact point that I'm trying to make in my drunken haze - the *only* people who will profit from this are the lawyers... bah!!

     

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  16.  
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    Gary Arseneau, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 5:49pm

    The dead don't photograph.

    (excerpt from an 7/26/10 email sent to Rick Norsigian)

    Since the promotion and sale [of these so-called Ansel Adams images] seems to be coming from the State of California, what state statutes may be applicable?

    Under California Civil Code 1738 to 1745, the “California law provides for the disclosure in writing of certain information concerning certain fine prints, photographs and sculpture prior to effecting a sale of them. This law requires disclosure of such matters as the identity of the artist, the artist’s signature, the medium, whether the multiple is a reproduction.”[FN 7]

    Failure to give full and honest disclosure to reproductions as reproductions may included but not limited to: refund, interest, treble damages, court costs, attorney fees and $1,000 fine per occurrence.

    Under U.S. Copyright Law § 101. Definitions: a “work of visual art” is — (2) a still photographic image produced for exhibition purposes only, existing in a single copy that is signed by the author, or in a limited edition of 200 copies or fewer that are signed and consecutively numbered by the author.”

    Since dead Ansel Adams could not have produced anything, much less sign and number, the resulting images would, at best, be derivatives.

    Under U.S. Copyright Law § 101. Definitions: a “’derivative work’ is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a ‘derivative work’.”[FN 11]

    In other words, a derivative is a reproduction.

    Under U.S. Copyright Law § 106A. Rights of certain authors to attribution and integrity37 (a) Rights of Attribution and Integrity. — Subject to section 107 and independent of the exclusive rights provided in section 106, the author of a work of visual art — (1) shall have the right — (A) to claim authorship of that work, and (3) The rights described in paragraphs (1) and (2) of subsection (a) shall not apply to any reproduction.”[FN 12]

    In other words, if dead Ansel Adams did not create it, it’s, at best, a reproduction and not attributable to him.

    FOOTNOTES:
    7.http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/waisgate?WAISdocID=19661316448+0+0+0&WAI Saction=retrieve
    8. http://www.ricknorsigian.com/norsigian_purchase.html
    9. http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#101
    10. http://www.ricknorsigian.com/norsigian_purchase.html
    11. http://www.copyright.gov/title17/92chap1.html#101
    12. Ibid

     

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  17.  
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    Phil, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 5:56pm

    Be careful what you claim to believe. Maybe your conclusions aren't what you thought

    Here's a question for Matthew Adams, the photographer's grandson who is publicly doubting the authenticity of the newly found negatives, and who, according to some news reports is threatening to sue Norsigian:

    So if the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust is arguing that these new images are not by Ansel Adams, while multiple experts are stating that the negatives almost certainly were created by Adams.... does this mean that the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust is suggesting that someone else could have created images so good that multiple experts can be deceived into believing they are the work of the great photographer?
    Isn't this making the argument that perhaps Ansel Adams wasn't so unique after all?

     

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  18.  
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    Rekrul, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 6:07pm

    Re: Re:

    How would you get a hefty sum? Your in a pretty bad spot to negotiate I think, you can either sell to them for their lowball offer, hang onto them and get nothing or sell them to someone else who can't legally make prints from them either.

    Easy, you contact the heirs and tell them; "It's been estimated that the potential sales of prints from these negatives could be as much as $200 million. I'll take $5 million. Otherwise you'll never see a single cent from these negatives."

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 7:04pm

    Re:

    Copyright should NOT be linked to someones life (or time of death) at all. Think of crazy people and motives for crimes.

     

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  20.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 7:12pm

    Re:

    no

     

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  21.  
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    Porkster, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 7:55pm

    Ownership

     

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  22.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 8:41pm

    "the article claims "copyrighted name," but I believe the AP reporter gets that wrong"

    Don't be silly, the AP never gets anything wrong!

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 9:01pm

    If pre-1923 it is Katie-Bar-the-Door.

    If post 1923 and copyright still pertains and is held by either the heirs or an assignee, the publication of photos from the negatives would stand on the same footing as any other work. Prints would certainly be viewed as copies, and sales would certainly be viewed as distribution.

    Of course, there is always the latent issue that trademark law may somehow be implicated, even if copyright is lapsed.

    Perhaps the same can be said in those states recognizing a right of publicity, but the provisions of such laws are scattered all over the place in terms of their substantive scope.

    Ownership of the negatives themselves will almost certainly be investigated to determine how they happened to come into the possession of their current holder.

     

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  24.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 28th, 2010 @ 9:36pm

    There are collectors who would pay top dollar to have the original glass, especially if no prints have ever been made of them. They are truly unique. Of course, the owner of the glass could "license" them back to the heirs.

     

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  25.  
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    zinfool (profile), Jul 28th, 2010 @ 11:58pm

    Ansel Adams lost Glass (Plates) negatives

    I thought long and hard before deciding to respond to this
    article. I knew, worked, and studied with Ansel. What makes
    a great artist is as much of what you don't see, as what you
    do. One negative out of 50 or 100 maybe all that you see from a great photographer, 1 in 10 may hold some interest for going back for a retry, and 9 out of 10 are fatally flawed by either light, composition, exposure, or damage to the negative. Some are pure experimentation in exposure, and
    not ever intended for print. None of the glass plates, as they are called, were chosen by Ansel to print.

    To print them, would be a grave disservice to Ansel and his
    art. They may hold interest, in their existence, an unusual
    collection on to themselves, but that should be all, that should be enough. Civility among all parties for Ansel's sake, please....

     

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  26.  
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    Chris Maresca (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 12:02am

    $3 million for an unpublished, unique Ansel Adams?

    Seems quite plausible if you compare it to others:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_expensive_photographs

    The top photograph sold for $3 million and it had three prints at least. These are rare original glass plates, which are probably even more valuable.

    So, $200 million for 65 prints of a hugely more famous photographer? Very, very possible, esp. if they are sold over a long period of time and exhibited to generate interest. I believe a print could be made as long as it was not sold.

    Chris.

     

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  27.  
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    zinfool (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 12:06am

    Ansel Adams lost Glass (Plates) negatives

    I thought long and hard before deciding to respond to this
    article. I knew, worked, and studied with Ansel. What makes
    a great artist is as much of what you don't see, as what you
    do. One negative out of 50 or 100 maybe all that you see from a great photographer, 1 in 10 may hold some interest for going back for a retry, and 9 out of 10 are fatally flawed by either light, composition, exposure, or damage to the negative. Some are pure experimentation in exposure, and
    not ever intended for print. None of these glass plates, as they are called, were chosen by Ansel to print.

    To print them, would be a grave disservice to Ansel and his
    art. They may hold interest, in their existence, an unusual
    collection on to themselves, but that should be all, that should be enough. Civility among all parties for Ansel's sake, please....

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    martyburns (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 3:13am

    Re: Re: Re:

    5m? I'll take 50m thanks.

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 29th, 2010 @ 6:16am

    export market?

    Why not just take the negatives to a country other than the US and print them there?

     

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  30.  
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    Wolfy, Jul 29th, 2010 @ 6:34am

    I wonder if riaa and their ilk have jacked our laws around to the point where it would be illegal for the fellow to GIVE AWAY prints?

     

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  31.  
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    EngineerZ, Jul 29th, 2010 @ 7:57am

    The negative was only part of the process

    The end of Mike's original write-up touches on the crux of the issue and it's worth expanding bit... Ansel Adams was a great educator; he wrote and taught extensively about how he created his work. His books detailed the technical processes he used and many of those were very sophisticated darkroom techniques. So if there's one thing known about Adams, it's that he just didn't mechanically crank out prints in assembly line manner; he creatively applied these processes in varying ways to produce unique pieces of art. Over the years he would print the same negatives over and over using different techniques that would yield different results each time. Anyone who says they can make an Ansel Adams print because they have some of his negatives is full of it. Half or more of what went into a true Adams original was done by him in the darkroom. Without Adams, there will be no new Adams prints.

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jul 29th, 2010 @ 8:48am

    Excellent copyright analysis

    You analysis is right on target. If the works are unpublished, and if they were not made when Adams was a US government employee, then copyright in the works belongs to the Adam's estate. Norsigian can't reproduce or digitize the photos without their permission. Of course, the Adams estate can't sue Norsigian until it registers the copyrights with the Copyright Office, and if it can't get its hands on a copy of the photographs that Norsigian has, then it can't register the works.

    Clearly the primary value in the photographs is as physical objects. Any reproductions could only be made and sold with the estate's permission - and they would be wise to deny such permission, since we don't know how Adams would have wanted these works to have been printed.

     

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  33.  
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    harbingerofdoom (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 9:27am

    Re:

    only if it were a work for hire.

     

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  34.  
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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 10:34am

    Re: The dead don't photograph.

    In other words, if dead Ansel Adams did not create it, it is, at best, a reproduction and not attributable to him.

    But Adams did create them, so your whole post was a colossal waste of your time. Kudos.

     

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  35.  
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    Gene Cavanaugh, Jul 29th, 2010 @ 3:49pm

    Ansel Adams negatives

    We are missing the point. These are physical objects, that would be found, I believe, to be "lost or abandoned", and the guy bought them legally from the holder.

    HE OWNS THE NEGATIVES!

    Would there be copyright issues in publishing prints? Perhaps. Would there be copyright issues in selling them to a private collector of memorabilia? I am sure someone could argue that point, but I assume they would lose.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  36.  
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    Nastybutler77 (profile), Jul 29th, 2010 @ 4:05pm

    Re: Re: The dead don't photograph.

    *Well I guess we'll know soon enough whether he did or not. If not, then no one will care about the negatives or the prints one way or the other.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  37.  
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    David Leland Hyde, Aug 2nd, 2010 @ 12:41am

    Copyright

    Copyright and reproduction rights have to be conveyed separately from the physical original artwork. The A A Trust owns all publishing rights regardless of what the heirs own.

     

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  38.  
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    BNelson, Aug 24th, 2010 @ 6:49pm

    Copyright remedies

    They can also file criminal charges if the infringement results in more than a small amount of loss for the copyright owners (AA Trust) or any amount of profit to the infringer. Not clear what (if any) "proof" the prosecution would need for ownership of the copyright in question, but "numerous experts" may testify to their authenticity, and it matters not whether the infinged copyright is registered prior to filing charges (as it would for a civil suit).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  39.  
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    Shepherdguy (profile), Jan 9th, 2011 @ 10:20am

    Article may have it all wrong?

    Unless copyright laws have changed for photographs and negatives, then the article may very well be wrong. Photographs and negatives do not need to be copyrighted at the Copyright Office like books, stories, and poems do - they are automatically ceded to the photographer. However, a photographer has the right to sell the rights to a photograph in several ways. They can sell an individual or firm one-time rights to use an image for a given purpose, they sell the image for limited use, they can sell the image under exclusive rights, meaning that the buyer is the only one who can use the image for the contracted length of time, or they can sell the rights to the photo clear and outright, giving up their own right to the use of the photo.

    Right now, there are too many unknowns about how the Ansel Adams negatives got to Southern California. Did a housekeeper or another individual take the plates from Adams' home years ago? Did Adams give or sell the plates to a friend or relative? Did one of his relatives get rid of the plates deeming them of little value? Unless the plates were taken from the home without authorization, it can very well be considered that the plates were given or sold and the rights transferred with them since they are the original plates.

    So I am thinking this one is going to be decided in the courts and I think the surviving heirs will have a difficult time proving the current owner does not have rights to them seeing that they obviously didn't know of their existence. But even "IF" the man can rightfully sell prints, they will not be Ansel Adam prints since Ansel Adams did not make the prints. This will limit the value, but considering that Ansel Adams was the photographer of the prints, they will still sell at an incredible price.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  40.  
    identicon
    Fred Taylor, Nov 11th, 2011 @ 6:21pm

    Adams

    I've seen one of the new prints on my computer, 26"HD monitor, and the feeling just isn't there as when you view a real Adam's. Check out some of Adam's "Industrial Works" to get the feel of an Adam's.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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