Sam Walton in 1985. (AP Photo)

Even people who hate Wal-Mart are inspired by Sam Walton’s rags-to-riches entrepreneurial success. A World War II veteran, he bought a variety store in a small rural town in 1950 and 41 years later owned the largest retail chain in America.

But a collection of photographs taken between 1950 and 1994 that captures the story of a family living the American dream has become the subject of an ugly lawsuit.

The photos were taken by Robert Huff, who owned Bob’s Studio of Photography in Fayetteville, Ark., about 35 minutes down the road from where the Walton family lived. Huff’s son David joined the family business and over the years they shot hundreds of photos of the Waltons.

Now the Waltons are suing the photographer’s widow, Helen Huff, 63, to get the photo negatives, along with any proofs and prints she still has.

The Walton family and the Walmart Museum (filing suit as Crystal Lands, LLC, and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., respectively) claim the negatives and proofs belong to them and that the studio only kept them as a courtesy to the family, according to the complaint filed in an Arkansas court. They want to prevent Huff from selling the negatives or using them for commercial purposes.

Huff claims she has copyright to the photos and filed a counterclaim asking a federal judge to stop Wal-Mart from using them without her permission. Wal-Mart wants to display some of the photos at its museum.

The 200 photos in question include pictures of the Walton family, the original Wal-Mart board of directors and the Wal-Mart visitor’s center. Some of the photos were shot at Bob’s Studio of Photography, others the family took to the studio for restoration.

The case boils down to who was in charge when these photographs were taken. Huff says her husband and father-in-law were hired as independent contractors, according to the Arkansas Times, which would mean they were in charge of the photoshoots and have rights to the photos they took. As proof, Huff points out that the photographers used their own equipment, lenses, lights and backdrops; controlled the positions of their subjects; chose and developed the film or hired the processing company; and provided a copyright notice to the Walton family notifying them that they owned ‘exclusive rights to reproduce’ the pictures.”

But the Waltons claim, according to the newspaper, that the photographs were created as a “work-for-hire.” Without a written contract, the Waltons have to show their relationship with the photography studio was like an employer-employee relationship in which the family was boss. As proof, the family claims it supervised the photo shoots.

The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) believes Huff is the rightful owner of the pictures. “[I]n this case, it’s the largest retailer in the world bullying a small Arkansas studio,” wrote chief executive David Trust on PPA’s Web site. “It’s a total David vs. Goliath situation.”

PPA cites a case in which Oprah Winfrey claimed she owned rights to photos taken on her TV set. As in the Wal-Mart case, Winfrey wanted rights to the photos and claimed they were created as works-for-hire. But without written agreements, the court found in favor of the photographers.

PPA reported that the Waltons offered Helen Huff $2,000 for the negatives and proofs, which she turned down. But Huff’s lawyers declined to confirm the offer.

On Monday, Wal-Mart spokesman Randy Hargrove issued a statement about the case:

As you can imagine, many of the photos go back many years and commemorate the history, heritage and culture of our company. We believe that some of the photos that Bob’s Studio has belong to Walmart. 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. We never wanted the issue to reach this point and we’ve done everything possible to avoid this.

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Arkansas will hear the case on July 7.

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