Wal-Mart's Founders Don't Control Their Family Photos (and Neither Do You)

Photograph by Getty Images

There’s at least one way the Waltons, billionaire founders of Wal-Mart, is like any other family: From about 1950 to the mid-1990s, they regularly posed for portraits at a local photo studio.

Bob’s Studio of Photography in Fayetteville, Ark., has negatives, proofs, and prints of more than 200 photographs, including images of the Waltons as children, the parents of founder Sam Walton, and the first board of directors at the company. Now the family (under the name Crystal Lands) and the retail giant (in the form of the Walmart Museum) have filed a lawsuit alleging that those photos belong to them, not to the studio.

The Walton-Walmart lawyers maintain that the images are the family’s intellectual property because they were taken under their “supervision”: The studio kept the negatives and proofs only as a courtesy. Helen Huff, the widow of one of the studio’s founders, filed a counterclaim arguing that she holds the copyright to the photos.

“It’s a total David vs. Goliath situation,” David Trust, the head of the Professional Photographers’ Association, wrote in a blog post. A victory by the Waltons “would set a terrible precedent and goes, flat out, against copyright law,” he said, noting that a court rejected a similar claim by Oprah Winfrey.

Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove issued a statement that says in part:

“Many of the photos go back many years and commemorate the history, heritage and culture of our company. … 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.”

So what about the rest of us? Who controls the rights to the photos we’ve had taken at, say, Target and JCPenney? Or our humiliation-inducing school portraits?

According to the terms of use at Target, we do not own those photos. Read through far enough and you will come to this definitive statement: “Professional portraits are copyright protected.” Same goes for those shot at JCPenney. Customers at either retailer must pay extra to have their photos archived for longer than 90 days.

Walmart, by the way, no longer offers portrait photography. The company that used to offer that service in its stores went bankrupt in 2013.

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