Walmart Suing a Photog’s Widow, Waltons Say They Own the Copyright to His Photos of Their Family


In a copyright battle truly worthy of the David and Goliath designation, it seems that Walmart and its founding family, the Waltons, have filed a lawsuit against the widow of a photographer who ran a small Arkansas studio called Bob’s Studio of Photography.

According to the PPA, the lawsuit is over a set of images that the studio’s founder, Robert A. Huff, took of the Walton family before they were the owners of the largest retail chain on planet Earth.

The Waltons believe they own the copyright to these photos, and so after their offer of $2,000 to buy the photos, negatives, and proofs of the Waltons that Huff’s daughter in law Helen is currently in possession of was turned down, they have chosen to take her to court.

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From the PPA’s release:

The complaint states that they (the Waltons) seek to obtain six or more boxes of photos, negatives, and proofs, alleging that over the years, Bob’s Studio retained those items “as a courtesy” to Walmart and their family (they didn’t). The complaint further states that the Waltons own intellectual property rights to the photos (they don’t). The fact is, under federal law, photographers own the copyrights to their own works.

This is, of course, only one side of the story, and so we have contacted Walmart’s media relations to see if they have any comment, but on the surface it seems like an open-and-shut case of bullying that, assuming Huff doesn’t cave in to intimidation, will end in Walmart’s case being thrown out of court.

“It’s a total David vs. Goliath situation,” PPA CEO David Trust said via press release. “We simply can’t remain idle and allow this to happen — it would set a terrible precedent and goes, flat out, against copyright law.”


According to the PPA, a precedent for this was already set in a lawsuit filed by Oprah Winfrey in which she claimed she owned any photos of her taken on her set. She, perhaps, had a better case, and still her argument was rejected by the court.

As to Huff’s case, her defense has not only taken the suit out of State court and into Federal court, they have also filed a counterclaim of copyright infringement, pointing out that Walmart has used and allowed others to use Huff’s photos repeatedly over the years.

Walmart has yet to respond to this counterclaim, but we have asked both them and the PPA for further comment, and will update this post if and when those responses come in. In the meantime, let us know what you think of this in the comments. Is there any possible argument Walmart could make that would change your mind, or is this a clear case of bullying?

(via PPA)

Image credits: Walmart Exterior by Sven, Bob’s Studio of Photography via Google Street View, Walton’s Store by Bobak.

  • Jason Wright

    Lovely attitude! I am sure there are some Bakers and Hair salon workers that would be quite offended to hear what they do is not artistic in any way!
    Have you SEEN a good cake ever?

    Also, why is a paid studio shot not art? Are you saying that Photography as a whole isn’t art? Or are you suggestion that paying for it stops it being art? Or are studio shots “not good enough” to be artistic in YOUR OPINION? Are you going to lay down standards for every body to follow before you classify them as an artist?

    IF YOU CREATE SOMETHING then you own it. Assuming you paid for whatever materials were required then it’s yours. That includes the copyright to it. There is no required skill level or implied “way” of making it for it to qualify.

    When a photographer sells a print that is all he sells. If he chooses to sell the rights too then that’s fine, but they are NOT implied or automatically transferred with the print.

    You appear to have no grasp of not only the law but either common sense or artistic authority.

  • Jason Wright

    That is the best idea I have heard yet. Although part of the reason they want the rights is so they can prevent other people using it as well as use it themselves.

    Better to just publish it all “copyright free” and give away the rights to everybody on the net and then let them GO MENTAL with photoshop on the images.
    Can you imagine the outcome of that?
    In fact you could probably write up a legal document giving everybody in the world rights to the images EXCEPT the Waltons then watch them try to sue everybody :)

  • Cornel Strutu

    I am not a professional, but I do take pictures with a DSLR for about 10 years, and I am quite good at it. So I do not have your perspective, but I am not like one of the “ones”.

    Please make sure you correctly inform your customers what they own and what they can do with the pictures they have paid for. Not jut small print, but a big disclaimer. Usually people don’t know what they sign when they get a loans of tens of thousand of dollars, so not reading a big contract they sign when they go for a photo session would not be a surprise. That is if they sign any contract.

  • Emperience

    Cornel, I agree, most people don’t read the fine print and just sign it. I think fine prints don’t communicate effectively and I agree about the BIG disclaimer. Have it in readable font, simple, and straight to the point.

  • Emperience

    I agree. Greed.

  • Cornel Strutu

    Calm down.

    Photography can be art, but in my opinion not any work done by a photographer is art. A portrait done in a studio is a good example. I don’t think that a photographer making 5-10 portraits a day is art anymore. I do NOT want to offend anyone, just take it as an opinion. And a good baker is not an artist, he is a good baker.

    I understand that if you create something, you own it, by law. But that is not clear to everyone. When people go to get their photograph in a studio, they expect to own the result. I know I do. Or I did. That is why I agree with the Waltons, and I think that a better disclosure of who owns what should be done.

  • Thomas D Dittmer

    You are paying the photographer for his time, skillset, equipment, and anything else the photographer has to acquire in order to conduct business. The fact that you purchased a print points this out. The photographer owns the copyright. PERIOD! If you wish to USE, the images, I am sure a licensing arrangement can be reached…

  • GC Addicted

    If the Waltons, hired and paid to have Huff take their photos, then the Waltons own the rights to the photos and Huff has no rights to them. If Huff took the photos without the Waltons permission then Huff became a paparazzi. Who’s standing up for bottom feeding scum sucking paparazzi these days?

  • GC Addicted

    I think you are talking about the walking poor that you help create every time you spend another dollar in a Walmart or Sam’s Club store.

  • GC Addicted

    So if I hire and pay you to take my photo and then I post it in an advertisement, you are saying that you have the right to sue me for publishing a photo that you say you own. Is that right?

  • GC Addicted

    That makes about as much sense as if I hired a contractor to build me a half million dollar house only to find out that after I’d moved in that it was the contractor who owned the house.

  • ScorpionGeorge

    Indeed. That is unless you payed me to take photos for the purpose of using it to advertise your own business. That’s exactly what commercial photographers do. They get payed not only to take the photos you see in advertisements, but also to have the right to use the photos in marketing. Someone like Erik Almas would be a great example. Your contractor example makes sense, but it’s a completely different business and so whatever terms you and the contractor would agree to will be different than that of a photographer and model/client. I don’t know anything about the business of construction, but I would assume that the agreement would say that the construction company agrees to build a house for you, you agree to pay the company for building the house, and the construction company agrees that the house belongs to you because you payed to build the house specifically for you to own it. After all, it would also have to be built on your land, which is completely desperate from the house.

  • ScorpionGeorge

    Most people don’t read fine print if it’s too long to read. I’m guilty of that myself. Nonetheless, it’s still my fault for not having read the agreement that has been put in front of me. After all, I’m the one in control of my actions, not the company providing me with the agreement.

    I like to inform my clients what they’re allowed to do with the photos I provide them, both digital and in print. I inform them both verbally several times as well as in a very simple and easy to read agreement. Many portrait photographers do this, as well as other types of photographers. It’s just what comes with the business. There are some photographers that make handing out the rights to their photos part of their business, but it’s more rare than prevalent.

  • ScorpionGeorge

    I agree. It’s important, as the photographer, to keep the rights to the photos in order to stay in business. If we give up the rights to the photos, then we lose the ability to use them for things like marketing, which is very important.

  • Cornel Strutu

    I have asked my co-workers about this over the launch. None of them was aware that the photographer owns anything after the prints are hand over. Everybody knows that they buy a photograph, but they were unaware about the rights that stay with the photographer. It is understandable they don’t know how copyrights really works. Nobody was aware that the photographer may publish their photographs without any restrictions.

    I understand that the law gives the photographer the copyright, I just wish it was made clear to everyone, and I blame the photographers for the confusion PERIOD

  • bob cooley


  • Cornel Strutu

    I am sure you can give the rights to all the customers as default, and you be the one to specifically ask for marketing permission. After all, you only need a limited number of pictures for your portfolio. Or you may retain the rights to use the pictures for self promotion.

    I think there are other reasons than marketing.

    Anyway, we don’t disagree. Photographer keeps the rights or he gives them away to the customer, it should be made clear, that is my only concern here.

  • Jarred Sutherland

    There is a reason why the phrase “let the buyer beware” exists. In the end, it is up to the consumer to educate themselves. Expecting a business to know what you haven’t educated yourself on is just silly.

  • Jarred Sutherland

    Try blaming the officer next time you’re fined for a law you didn’t know about or understand.

  • Cornel Strutu

    So you have always read and understand all the legal disclaimers on the internet, and read all the contracts you have signed.

    When instagram changed their TOS, that permitted them to sell the photos, without the uproar on the internet, how many photographers would have been deceived?

    I think that if customers would be better informed, the practices would change and people would start asking for the copyright too, not just prints.

  • Jarred Sutherland

    Are you claiming that because I may have not read a particular contract that they are now null and void? I am unsure of what point you’re trying to make. Regardless if I understand it or not, the contract is still valid. Just because you don’t like something doesn’t make it void.

    Consumers can be better informed, they can read the contract they are signing. It’s been like that for a long time on all kinds of things. That, or you just don’t act like everything is owed to you because you handed over some cash for a service. It’s a pretty simple concept.

  • Cornel Strutu

    No. The contract is still valid. And the photographer holds all the rights granted by the law.

    I think I already made clear what I wish was made differently.

  • Hyla Levy

    And they’ve sent over a million US manufacturing jobs to China. A documentary used a hidden camera to show a Walmart executive tell a manufacturer he has to shut down his American plant and have everything made in China so Walmart can keep the prices low. And then there’s all the mom and pop stores that have gone out of business because they’ve lost their customers to low-paying WM.

    Ironically, Sam Walton’s autobiography is titled, “Made in America”.

  • hdc77494

    The companies who move their operations make a choice to do so. After all, WalMart isn’t the only store out there. Do you think the consumers who can only afford to shop at WalMart really care what suppliers have to do to keep prices low? Not everyone has so much extra cash that they gladly pay inflated prices. As for the little mom and pops who had small town monopolies and couldn’t compete, maybe those thousands of customers getting lower prices are a good trade. WalMart is evil because they put a laser focus on low prices for their customers, and force their suppliers to be as efficient as possible? Get real. Those hundred thousand WalMart employees only work for minimum wage until they have marketable skills, then they move on or move up. It would be that way even if WalMart didn’t exist. Millions upon millions save money at WalMart, and you’re more concerned about the few who, without WalMart, could more easily gouge their customers?

  • Martin B

    You don’t need a release to sell images for editorial use. I sell images through Alamy and as long as the photos are being used for editorial and not advertising they are still worth quite a bit of money.

    Editorial use: is when an image is used in conjunction with, and to
    illustrate, a story or descriptive piece of text. Examples include
    magazine or newspaper features and books.

  • Hyla Levy

    “Not everyone has so much extra cash that they gladly pay inflated prices.”

    You’re seriously calling paying American manufacturing employees a wage they can feed their family on as inflated? Keeping manufacturing jobs in the States is gouging customers? Do you work for Walmart?!?!?

    The Walton family is worth billions upon billions – by making money off employees who collect food stamps and are thus supported by taxpayers. YOU (if you are an American) are putting money in the Waltons bank accounts even if you don’t shop at Walmart. How do you not see a problem with that?

    I understand poor people shopping there; unfortunately, people who do have money also shop there. Walmart is like the cycle of poverty – send jobs overseas so more people are out of work (or decent paying work) which means more people can only afford to shop at Walmart, and so on and so on. EVERYBODY loses. Except the Waltons (and other oligarchs).

  • bob cooley

    Correct, but several decade old family photos have very little editorial value, and I’m not sure if you sold any images to publications lately (I’ve been an editorial shooter for 30 years), its mostly chump-change, even for bigger publications. We aren’t talking about an exclusive photo of the Royal’s baby here, its an old family photo of a family who has been extensively photographed.

    If a magazine or newspaper wanted to get a photo of any of the Waltons, or a family photo, there are plenty of them already out there, they would have no need to pay anywhere near $2k for it…

  • Nwheatcraft

    Two simple things here: walmart is a blight, a puss filled infected cancerous mass growing on the vitality of this country. It is run by vapid, pedantic fools with no concern for their effect on those around them, just what they can get away with. I’ve got nothing but middle fingers for them all. Secondarily, copyright law isn’t hard to understand, unless you’re a entitled ignorant self indulgent peacock. The Waltons are pillocks.

  • Martin B

    I get an average of around $150 to $200 for my images through Alamy and they are of no one famous with the exception of the few I sold of Obama a few years ago. Most are just people.

    Besides, the owner of the images has a right to sell or not to sell and also to set their own price. I think that is the main takeaway here.

    Alamy sells a 1988 image of Sam Walton with no model release with a price of $149 for three year license.

    Getty also sells an image of Sam Walton from 1988 and for use as a book cover on a book with a circulation of 100,000 issues, in English speaking coutries only, charges $1,815.00, for the one image, for the one use. So yeah, Getty would be interested. I would be interested. I’d give them $10,000 for the copyright and the negatives, right now, out of my own pocket and that would be cheap.

  • bob cooley

    $150-$200? like I said, chump change.

    Did you get your calculation on the 1988 Sam Walton / Getty image by using their calculator? If you did, you missed the last step that says “For Editorial use only, Commercial User may require separate licensing”

    Which they can’t provide with the family portrait for a book cover, because that is a commercial, non-editorial use – and they would have no release. They won’t license it for that use. Getty may list it for editorial uses (unlikely), but they would have a very limited market with it.

    You want to continue to argue, but you don’t seem to have to very good understanding of the market. I don’t say that as an insult, but simply to say that you are clinging to an idea with which you don’t either have experience or clarity.

  • Martin B

    Commercial use as in advertising. No one is going to use images like that for advertising anyway, so your point is moot. Of course any sales are going to be for editorial use. Like the cover of a non-fiction book, or a 1/4 page in an online encyclopedia. And the extra 5 to 6 thousand dollars Alamy pays me a year for my outtakes that I would never use myself if I lived to be 100 seems like sweet chump change when it gets transferred into my bank account. Like I said, I’ll pay them ten thousand for the negs right this minute. They are worth way more than that.

  • Martin B

    and as far as knowing the business, I was working with the Bruce Coleman Agency since back in the early 90s until the time they were liquidated. I don’t specialize in stock photos, but I do know the value of vintage photos of notable people is more than $2000 for a few decades worth of images.

  • bob cooley

    Commercial use is not strictly advertising, it’s essentially all non-jounalistic uses for publication. To publish an image on a book-cover would be a commercial use, and it a primary marketing component of a book, and requires a release.

  • bob cooley

    lol – saying that you worked with BC doesn’t show business acumen, they were a train wreak. :)

  • joebud

    We’re talking about the Waltons here so, yes, they have editorial value.

  • joebud

    You’re losing your cool, Bob.

  • Manuel Cordero

    If your face is on a picture, You also have the right to use Your own photo. A photo of You! Unless of course you signed a model release form, then you are screwed.
    A man sued Taster’s choice for having used his picture without his permission and Won a ton o money.

  • bob cooley

    A couple decade old family photo of a family that has been extensively photographed? They may have some editorial value, but not a lot – and at editorial prices today, far less than the amount they were offering. Unfortunately the market drives the prices, and this just isn’t a highly marketable image with the types of restrictions that would be on it (editorial only).

  • bob cooley

    Ahh I love puns.

  • ColinVarga

    This seems like a straight “work for hire” issue. The Waltons hired the photographer to take their picture therefore the copyright belongs to the Waltons.