As reported in this Washington Post news article and many similar articles in other major news organs, a lawsuit has very recently been filed against Harvard University and various associated institutions, including Harvard's Peabody Muse am. The complaint is here This suit seeks possession of several early photographs ( daguerreotypes) of slaves taken in 1850.
Other news stories:
These photos were taken in an effort to help support the then controversial but respectable "polygenist" theory that different human "races" had separate origins. This theory is now discredited, and had been used to support racist views and actions. These daguerreotypes are believed to be the earliest extant images of slaves in the US, according to the story. They were taken at the instance of, and published by, then Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, and remained in storage at the university.
Paragraphs 203 through 213 of count 1 of the complaint assert that the photographs were "unlawfully taken" because the subjects never consented to being photographed, and were not compensated. Those paragraphs further assert that Agassiz never had good title to the photos, and that thus neither did Harvard.They further assert that the plaintiff is the next of kin of the man shown in one of the photos, and as such is entitled to possession of and title to the original photos.
Count 3 asserts that under MA general laws Chapter 214, section 3A, use of these photos without the consent of the next of kin for "advertising and commercial purposes" is unlawful and actionable.
Count 4 asserts that Harvard's possession and use of these photos is unlawful under the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits slavery, and was drafted and ratified after the end of the US Civil war, more than 15 years after the photos were taken.
For the purposes of this question I assume that the photos were indeed taken without consent, and that the plaintiff in the suit has correctly identified the subject of the photo, and is indeed the direct descendant of one subject and the surviving next of kin of another, although I gather that these statements are disputed.
This suit has just been field as I write, and has not yet been passed on in any way by any court, to my knowledge.
is it plausibly the case that ownership of an original photograph would be awarded to the subject (or the subject's heirs) because the subject did not consent to the making of the photograph?
Do Massachusetts laws indeed protect personality and publicity rights in photos more than 160 years old, if they were originally taken without consent of the subject, and are now used without consent from the subject's next of kin?
Does the US 13th amendment give any private right of action to claim property obtained via ownership of slavery, or that may constitute a "badge of slavery"?