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If purported Ansel Adams photos earn big money, their discoverer may not get to keep it [Updated]

July 29, 2010 |  7:00 am

RickNorsigianLawrenceKHo Here's a little plot-thickener in the strange case of the disputed photo negatives of Yosemite and coastal California scenes that may or may not have been taken by Ansel Adams.

Rick Norsigian, a wall-painter for the Fresno school district, bought the old-fashioned glass-plate negatives 10  years ago at a garage sale and has begun selling prints made from them on his website as authentic Adams images, priced at $7,500 for hand-developed prints, $1,500 for digital copies and $45 for posters.

But according to a brief lesson in copyright law that Culture Monster got Wednesday from L.A. attorney Lawrence Iser, a go-to figure in the music business, if Norsigian makes a mint -- and an appraisal he released Tuesday put the potential value at more than $200 million -- he could face the risk of having to turn over all or part of the loot to Ansel Adams' heirs.

All they'd have to do is agree with Norsigian that the negatives were shot by Adams -- something they've so far disputed, saying the proof he proffered for the first time on Tuesday falls far short.

Iser has represented the Beatles, Michael Jackson, the Doors and Crosby, Stills & Nash, among others; when Jackson Browne wanted to stop John McCain from using "Running on Empty" in a commercial for his 2008 presidential campaign, Iser helped Browne win an apology for violating his copyright. He's now representing composer David Byrne in a similar case over the Talking Heads' song "Road to Nowhere" cropping up without authorization in a campaign commercial for Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who's running for a U.S. Senate seat.

According to Iser, simply owning a reproducible artifact, such as a photographic negative, a recording artist's master tape or the original manuscript of a novel, doesn't give that object's owner any rights to make copies and sell them. The copyright -- and the earnings that flow from it -- belongs to the artist and his or her estate.

For how long? In the case of a previously unpublished work such as the disputed negatives, which Norsigian published a few days ago when he began selling them, Iser says the artist's heirs retain the copyright for 70 years after the artist's death. In the case of Adams, who died in 1984, that would be until 2054.

AnselAdamsselfportrait Norsigian's attorney, Arnold Peter, saw things differently when asked Tuesday about possible copyright issues: "We have looked into that and we don't believe there are any copyright issues. We believe that copyright has either expired or been abandoned. We believe it would have expired at the latest in the year 2000," based on 70 years having passed since the pictures were shot.

"I'm sure Ansel Adams' family is getting some legal advice about how they should best deal with it," Iser said. If the photos are proven to be by Adams, Iser said, Norsigian "would need a license or permission from the estate of Ansel Adams to reproduce the photographs. Ownership of the master does not mean you own copyright."

But in order to make a claim on Norsigian's earnings from the prints, or to stop their sale, Iser said, Adams' estate would have to first agree with Norsigian that the 17 pictures he has published so far, out of a cache of 65, are authentic works by Ansel Adams.

We posed the question to William Turnage, Adams' former business manager who is managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust that administers the copyright for the photographer's work.

"It is an interesting conundrum," Turnage wrote in an e-mail Wednesday. "And I seriously doubt we would ever claim these negatives as Ansel's ... since we do not believe they are Ansel's. But we have copyrighted Ansel's name and believe that this precludes others from using it for commercial purposes without permission."

[Update: 10:50 a.m. Thursday. “We are exploring…legal options” on how to stop the sale of the prints, said Matthew Adams, the photographer’s grandson and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite, in an email Thursday. However, Adams said he is reluctant to claim that the sales are a copyright violation, because that would require a legal acknowledgement that they are Ansel Adams images.

“We believe they are not Adams negatives, and don't relish the thought of handing a moral victory to the people who are perpetuating this fantasy," Adams said. "We also think that by doing so we would be making an inaccurate attribution to Ansel Adams' legacy, and that we would also suddenly have hundreds if not thousands of negatives thrust at us claiming Ansel Adams legitimacy.”

Stay tuned to Culture Monster for possible further adventures in these borderlands where artistic vision overlaps with commerce and the law.

-- Mike Boehm

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Photos: Rick Norsigian at Tuesday's news conference detailing experts' opinions that negatives he owns were by Ansel Adams; Ansel Adams' "Self Portrait, Monument Valley Utah, 1958." Credits: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times (top); Ansel Adams / Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust (bottom)

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