Walmart’s Latest Classless Move: Suing a Photographer’s Widowed Wife

Picture taken from Walmart Corporate on Flickr.

Picture taken from Walmart Corporate on Flickr.

It’s amazing how perfect the narrative of this story is; Americans love suing, and who not better to be the plaintiff than one of our country’s biggest corporations? Walmart, a company that builds breeding grounds for American stereotypes (and supermarkets), is filing a lawsuit against the wife of a now-deceased photographer. What’s the dispute? They want the rights to photographs taken by the late husband and his father of the Walton family themselves.

For those that don’t know, the Waltons were the family that started Walmart. Robert and David Huff used to shoot portraits for them back when the supermarket wasn’t the success it is today. Now, the family is demanding the rights to the estimated 200 pictures taken, and they’re suing the late David Huff’s wife, Helen Huff, in order to get them. In their statements, they demand the rights to the boxes of negatives, photos, and proofs that the Huff Family possesses; the Waltons further argue that they themselves own intellectual property rights to the pictures. In an attempt to save face, the family tried offering $2,000 for everything. No word on whether Helen actually accepted the offer, but don’t count on it; that price is nowhere near how much the pictures are worth now, and it’s somewhat pathetic for a family of billionaires to refuse paying anything more than that.

Essentially, there’s only two possibilities here: that the Waltons have no absolute idea how copyright law works in this country, or that they do, but they’re hoping their power establishes some heavy influence in the court.

It’s not a secret that copyright law in the US establishes the photographer as the sole owner to the photos they take, and it’s a shame that a lawsuit like this has gone this far. When addressing the issue, the Professional Photographers Association cited the case of Natkin v. Winfrey; in the suit, Oprah Winfrey declares that she has intellectual rights to photos taken of her, only to be shot down in court by precedent. The photos the independent contract photographers on set took of her remained rightfully theirs.

Hopefully, this case follows that precedent and gets scrapped fast. I might be coming off as a bit harsh against Walmart, but if this were a suit between two average citizens, it would have been decided within a heartbeat. There’s precedent established, and there’s no reason for the case’s jurisdiction to have passed from the state court to the federal court. The unfortunate problem is that money and power talk, and Walmart’s pretty damn familiar to both.

[Via The Phoblographer]

  • http://www.sin3rgy-creative.com/ David Liang

    Unbelievable. They could easily afford to give the widower a generous sum for images she probably doesn’t want, and everyone walks away happy and with something great. Instead the Waltons willingly play bad guy…this is so malicious.

    • Doug Gray

      She doesn’t want them, she wants the money. The problem is that she wants a lot more than the $2000 they offered her.

      • Dave

        And you know this how? Has the widow mentioned that the $2000 was not enough? Or did she decline for another reason?
        As far as I can tell, nobody knows that reason. So nobody can really create these facts…

        What it looks like is that things have gone sour at some point.

        Photographer owns the negatives, end if story.

        It’s up to the widow to do what she wants with them, for all we know she may have destroyed them.

        I’ll reserve any judgement until we’ve more facts.

        • Doug Gray

          Because she would have absolutely no reason to want images of another family. None.

          I understand that she may own the rights and the photos. But she doesn’t want to keep them, she wants to sell them or just keep them away from that family for some other reason, not because she wants to frame them and put them up on her walls.

          • http://www.rephocusimaging.com/ Steven

            The article suggests that the $2000 was offered AFTER they’d demanded the photos – if that were the case, I’d probably hold out for more too, on principle.

            It’s not a question of what they can afford to pay for them, it seems to me that they’ve attempted to strong-arm her in the first instance, and followed up with a perfunctory offer as an appeasement.

            If anyone tried that approach with you, would you be inclined to deal with them in a reasonable manner?

          • Doug Gray

            It doesn’t matter what I’d be inclined to do. I never commented on that in the first place. All that I commented on is that she doesn’t really want the photos, she wants the money. And unless she is a crazy person, she is just like the rest of us who doesn’t want the family portraits for 35 years or another family hanging up on her walls or in her photo album. This is all about her getting more money or her being spiteful over something with the family.

          • http://www.rephocusimaging.com/ Steven

            I’m inclined to agree that it’s a tad spiteful and petty Doug, but my point was that if they thought they could bully her out of the photos by playing the Big Bad Company card, she’s well within her rights to resist.

            Had they offered the money up front before making demands and acting obnoxiously, there would be a much more stable footing for negotiations and more cordial relationships between parties. Their initial behavior has set the tone.

          • Tina

            But, your assuming that she has no reason, you don’t know for sure.

            If somebody came to me, asked for the images and also said “if you don’t give them up, you will be sued”, I really… Wouldn’t give them up, especially if they didn’t take them, MY HUSBAND DID.

            Well, we don’t know what they said OR what she said. Hopefully we will hear more details soon.

          • Doug Gray

            As I said, she either wants more money or she wants to keep them away from the family out of spite for some other reason. Yes, there is an assumption there that we don’t know for sure. But common sense tells us that unless there is something wrong with her mentally, she is like everyone else and doesn’t want family portraits of another family hanging up on her wall.

          • http://theresazphotography.wordpress.com/ Theresa

            Exactly, her Husband and his legacy may be priceless to her and she wants to hand it down to future generations, maybe she has grandchildren who are aspiring photographers. Now, if the Waltons would have asked to lease the pictures for their museum they might have had a good deal together.

      • Fiona Brims

        IF they belong to her… she can do what she wants . and if she wants to charge £10000 for them so be it they are hers to do with as she wants to if someone owns a painting and someone else offers to buy it for x amount would we be having this arguement if the owner refused…. it doesnt matter if they have no meaning to her or not IF they belong to her then its not up to anyone else to dictate what she does with them., end of., In this country there are restrictions on what can be done with them if the photographer was paid to take them….. but it doesnt mean the subject owns them.
        not sure about over there. but impretty sure copyright law there isnt as cut and dried as the article makes out,, it sure as hell isnt here.

        • Doug Gray

          Great Fiona, I never argued that she couldn’t do what she wanted with them. I simply argued that she doesn’t give a crap at all about the pictures and that she simply wants the money. I know the law and she’s within her rights to say no (assuming there is no contract that says otherwise). But David originally said she “probably doesn’t want them”, to which I countered that there is no reason at all she would want them other than the money. Nothing more.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ultrazyn Steven Thai Dee

    should go to the photographer unless he signed some contract that gives exclusive rights to wally world

  • rea5245

    “Suing a widow” makes a great headline, and Walmart makes a popular bad guy, but I’m not ready to side with Mrs. Huff. How did these pictures get taken? It sounds like David Huff was paid by the Waltons to take them. You say the pictures are worth far more than $2000. Photographers typically keep their originals, but it would be unethical (and perhaps a breach of contract) for the photographer to sell them on the open market or give them to anyone. In other words, the pictures are NOT worth a lot of money to an ethical photographer. So why is Mrs. Huff keeping them? Is she trying to screw more money out of a rich family? If the Waltons were poor, would she have taken $2000 – or even less – for them?

    If she wants to keep them as a memory of her husband’s work, then have them destroyed when she passes away, that’s legitimate (albeit obnoxious). But if she’s just digging for gold, I have to side with the Waltons.

  • https://www.facebook.com/david.ferringo David Ferringo

    There must be much more to this story.

    The Walton Family offered to purchase nearly 45 years worth of their family photos from the Estate. Their claim that the studio was holding the images for them. They want the photos for a museum for their family/company history. Not an unreasonable request. They aren’ tsui

    I agree the photographer has a right to the photos, but the client also has a right to offer to buy those rights. This happens all the time. I suspect the widow is holding out for an much larger offer then the Waltons feels is reasonable. I agree Walmart is a corporate Giant, and I don’t shop at their store. But there seems to be greed on both sides here.

    • https://www.facebook.com/matt.needham.ks Matt Needham

      The lawsuit claims that the Waltons think that they already own the photographs and rights to the photographs. A mistake many clients make when they don’t read the contract.

    • https://www.facebook.com/david.ferringo David Ferringo

      There is no mention of a contract. However the Waltons offered to compensate the widow for the rights to the photos. They didn’t start off demanding them as their. When she declined the lawsuit began. It would be interesting to see if there are 45 years worth of contracts. There was obviously a long term relationship between the photographer and the Waltons. I mean 45 years of working together who knows what may have been said. Some of my clients who are friends know I keep back ups of all work I shoot. Even years after delivery I have my originals. I think greed is at the root of this suit, it will be interesting to follow.

  • Tim Ashman

    It really depends on what the hiring contract says. That long ago and before the waltons where rich probably means that it was a straight up cash for photos which doesn’t give the waltons the ownership of the work product or originals. It will be interesting to see how this gets resolved.

  • https://www.facebook.com/freshairphoto Randy Gentry

    It’s been 6 years now that I’ve not stepped foot in a Walmart.

  • https://www.facebook.com/jarlerik.s Jarl-Erik Sandberg

    The late photographer has copyright and ownership even after death, for several decades to come.

  • David Lewis

    Federal court is where this should be… Probably left state court because it was an improper venue… I have no idea why they filed in state courts anyway. Because this is a high profile case, a court that does not have jurisdiction over the issue will not make a decision.
    We do not have all the details here either, it could be the Walton’s photos by contract or implication, but we don’t know that. Also, I would like to point out that Walmart is a publicly traded company, while the Walton’s hold a significant share of the company, they don’t represent Walmart.

    • Greg Heller

      I agree David – first of all if I’m not mistaken all patents, trademarks, and copyrights come under federal jurisdiction, if it didn’t that poor lady wouldn’t stand a chance in an Arkansas court.

      • Steve

        Walmart filed the suit in state court because in Walmart’s suit the photographer was merely storing the images for the Walton family and that according to their agreement the images belonged to the Walton Family.
        The photographer’s widow is the one that offer the copyright defense. The state court has to decide if the original agreement transferred ownership to the Waltons or if it remained with the photographer.

  • https://www.facebook.com/johnmcboston John McLachlan

    Why does anyone shop there??

    • Daemon

      Because it’s cheaper than most alternatives, and not everyone can afford to pay more than they have to.

  • 3241234124

    well they will burn in hell…..