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 It turns out that a bunch of experts have now agreed that the negatives are actually previously unpublished works by Ansel Adams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notifies us, unpublished works are given a copyright of "life of the author +70 years."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...