Trademark Lawsuit Over Alleged Ansel Adams Negatives

Photographs are protected by copyright, but what about the name of a famous photographer?  Can that be protected as a trademark?  Trademark’s help identify the origin of goods, so it would certainly stand to reason that a famous artist’s name could operate as a trademark.

  • A California man bought 65 glass plate negatives at a garage sale for $45 and later learned that they were the work of Ansel Adams, worth over $200 million.
  • The Adams Publishing Right Trust sued for trademark infringement when prints were made and sold under the Ansel Adams name.
  • There is a possibility that the photos came from another photographer.
  • The trademark dispute was resolved and prohibited the California man from selling the negatives or any prints under the Adams name.
  • The Adams Trust disputed throughout the authenticity of the negatives.

By using a famous photographer’s name to sell prints of photographs, this goes to the heart of what a trademark is.  It gives the public an expectation that the artwork is authentic.

A $45 garage sale find could be worth $200 million

In 2010, it had been over ten years that a California man named, Rick Norsigian had been trying to prove that a box of 65 glass-plate negatives he bought at a yard sale are the work of Ansel Adams.  Norsigian bought the negatives at a Fresno, California, garage sale for $45.

After marketing prints made from the negatives as Adams prints the Ansel Adams Publishing Right Trust filed a federal trademark infringement lawsuit against Norsigian.  Norsigian responded by filing counterclaims against the Trust.

A team of experts concluded they were Adams’ early work, believed to have been destroyed in a 1937 fire at his Yosemite studio, Norsigian said. The Adams Trust disputed that.

Could the photos be from another photographer?

However, the authentication effort was hampered from the beginning by the emergence of Earl Brooks. An Oakland woman, Marian Walton, produced a photo she said was taken by her “Uncle Earl” which seemed to match one of the negatives — a shot of the Jeffrey Pine in Yosemite.

Also in the fall of 2010, another seemingly matching photo of Yosemite was found in a photo scrapbook belonging to Brooks’ great grandson.  No word from Earl Brooks’ family about settlement agreement; one legal chapter might have closed, but many questions remain.

The dispute with the Adams Trust resulted in a settlement

Consequently, in 2010, Norsigian agreed to a confidential settlement with the Ansel Adams Publishing Right Trust in the trademark dispute, in which the parties have agreed to assume their respective legal costs, barring him from selling prints of the negatives under the Adams name.  His website, which once proclaimed a report declaring the work to be authentically Adams, has now been scrubbed of almost every mention of the famed photographer.  The prints, once priced at up to $7,500 a piece, currently cost no more than $960, all of which were previously appraised at $200 million.

In the settlement agreement Norsigian has agreed not to use Ansel Adams’ name to sell posters and other merchandise connected to the dozens of glass negatives, which he claimed were the renowned nature photographer’s work.

Norsigian has said that he would continue to seek to have the work authenticated.

It’s unclear what that authentication effort now means with the settlement in place.  Any attempt to sell prints with the name “Ansel Adams,” it appears, would be met with a trademark challenge from the Adams Trust. (The original value that Norsigian’s appraiser offered, $200 million, hinged on sale of the prints as well as the potential value of negatives themselves.)

The Adams Trust disputed that the photos were Ansel Adams

From the beginning, the Adams Trust disputed that Adams was the photographer in the strongest terms, but the legal action began when the trust filed a trademark infringement suit in federal court in San Francisco in August 2009. In January, Mr. Norsigian’s team added the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, which houses Adams’ archives, as a party to their countersuit against the Trust.

Norsigian was giving away commemorative posters that originally sold for $45 each for free. “I want to share this work with as many people as possible,” he said in a statement. “I think that the public will appreciate these stunning images.”

Whether you have a trademark you want to register, you have received a cease and desist or you need to send one, or whether you are on either side of a trademark infringement case, you will want to consult with a trademark attorney who can protect your rights.

Contact an attorney with Veritas Business Law, LLC for a free consultation.

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