Mar 9, 2021

The Law Is Black And White, But Should It Be?

In 2019, Tamara Lanier brought a claim for wrongful seizure, possession and expropriation against Harvard University following Harvard’s use and promotion of old photographs of Lanier’s descendants in the 1850’s. Lanier commenced proceedings against Harvard University demanding the photographs of her descendants be returned to her family, as well as claiming an unspecified amount in damages.

The photographs in question depict Lanier’s descendants during a time where slavery was rife within the United States of America. Lanier’s descendants are identified as two South Carolina slaves named Renty and Della. Both were forced to be photographed shirtless by a Harvard University professor named Louis Agassiz. In support of her claim, Lanier had her genealogical ties to Renty and Della verified, confirming that she grew up hearing stories about her descendants. Lanier argued that both Renty and Della were simply research material to Agassiz, who forced both to be subject to degrading treatment only to show their lesser status in society.

Judge Camille Sarrouf empathised with Lanier, acknowledging that the photographs of her descendants were taken in awful circumstances and understanding the continued impact slavery has had on the United States of America. However, Sarrouf then proceeded to dismiss Lanier’s claim.

Sarrouff held that neither Lanier nor her family own any rights in the photographs, as copyright would belong to the photographer.

If you have any questions on the above, please do not hesitate to contact the team at McDaniels Law on 0191 281 4000 or

Posted by: Tom Staveley in: Copyright, EU/International

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