In what photographers are calling a “David vs. Goliath” situation, the widow of a photographer who with his father shot hundreds of pictures of the Walton family from 1950 to 1994 is being sued by the Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the Walton family to have negatives, proofs and prints turned over to them.
Robert A. Huff and his son, David A. Huff, owners of Bob’s Studio of Photography in Fayetteville and both now deceased, photographed members of the Walton family from 1950 to 1994 in their studio. The Walton family, suing as Crystal Lands LLC, maintains that the studio kept the negatives and proofs as a courtesy to the family, but that they are the intellectual property of the Waltons.
Defendant Helen B.M. Huff, widow of David Huff, has filed a counterclaim, saying she holds the copyright to the photos and asking the court to stop Walmart from using the photographs without her permission. Huff says Bob and David Huff were independent contractors, using their own equipment, lenses, lights and backdrops; controlled the positions of their subjects; chose and developed the film or hired the processing company; and provided a copyright notice to the Walton family notifying them that they owned “exclusive rights to reproduce” the pictures.
Wal-Mart Stores, filing as The Walmart Museum, and Crystal Lands filed suit March 28 in Benton County Circuit Court, but attorneys for Huff, citing federal copyright law, were able to remove the case to federal court in the Western District of Arkansas. Federal Judge Timothy L. Brooks has scheduled a case management hearing for July 7.
The Waltons claim the pictures were taken under their “supervision” and that they thus hold intellectual property rights to more than 200 photographs in six boxes, including those shot at the studio as well as photos taken to the studio for restoration. The plaintiffs are asking the court for a declaratory judgment that the Walmart Museum and the family own the photographs and, whatever the result of the case is, to prevent Huff from making commercial use of the pictures.
PPA Today, the website of the Professional Photographers Association, reported on the lawsuit on its website May 12. The PPA claims that the Waltons offered Helen Huff $2,000 for the photographs, but Huff’s attorneys, Amy Martin and John Everett of the Everett, Wales and Comstock firm in Fayetteville, declined to confirm the offer. PPA Today noted in its article the Natkin v. Winfrey case, in which Oprah Winfrey claimed to own photographs taken on her set, but lost when the court ruled the photographers were not under “work-for-hire” contracts. Martin and Everett also maintain that Bob’s Studio’s arrangement with the Waltons was also not a “work-for-hire” contract. David Trust, CEO of the PPA, made the “David vs. Goliath” comparison, and said the suit “would set a terrible precedent and goes, flat out, against copyright law.”
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove issued this statement this afternoon:
As you can imagine, many of the photos go back many years and commemorate the history, heritage and culture of our company. We believe that some of the photos that Bob’s Studio has belong to Walmart. All we want is for the court to make it clear who rightfully owns these photographs. We tried very hard to resolve this without involving the courts. We never wanted the issue to reach this point and we’ve done everything possible to avoid this.