Former Twin Cities gallery owners sued for copyright infringement over Vivian Maier photos

A famous photograph by Vivian Maier of a man leaning on a ladder. Photo Courtesy: Estate of Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier captured life in mid-20th century America like few others.

But those images are now tangled in a copyright case with the former owners of a Twin Cities gallery caught in the middle.

Maier worked as a nanny for wealthy families in Chicago, but her work wasn't discovered until after she died in 2009.

In a lawsuit filed recently in district court, Maier's estate, which is administered by Cook County in Illinois because she didn't have any heirs, is suing Minneapolis Photo Center for copyright infringement.

The lawsuit claims that during an exhibit in 2014, the gallery sold unauthorized prints of Maier's work, from pictures of strangers on the street to her own self-portraits, and asks for all the profits the gallery made to be turned over to her estate.

"I don't think it’s a nuisance value lawsuit at all. I think it’s a legitimate lawsuit," entertainment attorney Mick Spence said.

Spence, who isn't connected to the case, said even though the gallery sold prints of Maier's stunning snapshots of everyday life, the man they got them from, Jeffrey Goldstein, didn't have the right to sell them.

Spence said even though Goldstein bought thousands of Maier's photos and negatives for pictures like "Man Leaning On Ladder" and "Elderly Couple Holding Hands" when her possessions were auctioned off,  Maier's estate actually owns the copyright for those pictures for 70 years after her death in 2009.

"The problem here is that the person who found these images and purchased them from her storage locker probably believed that in owning the objects - the pictures or negatives - believed wrongly that he owned the copyright as well. The intellectual property is different than the photos themselves," Spence said. "I'm glad someone is sorting out who owns the copyright and I hope the parties can figure out who can successfully exploit those photographs."

Minneapolis Photo Center was sold about a year and a half ago and continues to operate under a new owner. Fox 9 did reach out to the original owners but was unable to reach them for comment.