Adjunct Law Prof Blog

Editor: Mitchell H. Rubinstein
New York Law School

Monday, February 24, 2014

Robert Johnson's Son Wins Rights to Photographs

From The Guardian:

The son of legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson can keep profits from the only two known photographs of his father, the Mississippi supreme court ruled Thursday.

Robert Johnson died at the age of 27 in depression-era Mississippi having lived his brief adult life as an itinerant Delta bluesman.   In his life he only recorded 29 songs, and there are only two known photographs of him in existance.   He died before he turned 30 and the exact location of his grave is unknown (though there are three markers for him -- one in Morgan City MS, one in Quito MS, and one north of Greenwood MS).  After his death, Johnson became one of the most influential guitarists in music history --- in 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Johnson 5th among the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time.

The case is Aynne Anderson v. Stephen C. Lavere, No. 2012-CA-00601-SCT (Miss., February 20, 2012).  Mississippi courts had previously declared Robert Johnson's son, Claud Johnson, to be his sole heir in 1998.   This case turns on the relevant federal and state statute of limitations' application to the facts.   The case is interesting not only for its historical significance to music fans, but also as illustrating how testimony in once case case turn fatal in a subsequent claim.

According to the case, Plaintiffs Anderson, et al., initially believed they were the heirs to the Robert Johnson Estate -- Johnson died intestate in 1938 and left no estate of value, or so anyone then thought.  Plaintiffs opened Johnson's estate in 1989 believing themselves to be the bluesman's only heirs.  During the proceedings, they testified under oath that the recordings and two photographs were the Johnson Estate's property.  However, Mississippi courts ultimately found Claud Johnson to be Robert Johnson's only heir. 

In this subsequent litigation over rights to the two photographs, Plaintiffs' asserted the those same photographs belonged to them personally.  The court wrote:

Also, we note that during the [prior] heirship proceedings, Anderson and Harris did not claim the photographs belonged to Thompson. Rather, they claimed the photographs were assets of the Johnson estate. They assert that they did not bring a separate action because they thought they were the only heirs to the Johnson estate, and thus they were entitled to the photographs as Johnson’s heirs. So, only after losing the estate case did Anderson and Harris bring a separate action claiming that Thompson – and not the estate – owned the photographs. This strategy cannot serve to toll the statute of limitations.

A collection of Robert Johnson's recordings, "The Complete Recordings" won a Grammy Award in 1990 for Best Historical Album. 

Craig Estlinbaum

February 24, 2014 in Interesting Cases, Music, State Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Is Folk Music Still Possible?

Geoffrey Himes at Paste asks, "Is Folk Music Even Possible Anymore?"  He begins:

Is folk music even possible anymore?


By “folk music,” I refer not to the diluted meaning of the term, where anyone with an acoustic guitar or a fiddle can be considered a folk musician. I’m talking about true folk music, songs that are created by and for a small, self-contained community, where musicians are performing for friends and neighbors in a style they all grew up with. These folk musicians don’t have to bring out the universal—or generic—elements in their songs because they’re not traveling to play for strangers.


A singer/songwriter who travels the continent with her banjo and Martin guitar is not a folk musician in this sense; she’s a pop musician with different instrumentation.

Himes' article is a good read on how mass media and the consumer culture impacts indiginous and organic art forms.   He also warns that the "diminishing possibility of folk music" impoverishes popular culture.  Himes thus defends popular artists that "play old styles the same way previous generations did," arguing that if those artists did not, "what [wells of musical tradition] would we drink from?"  Himes writes, "When the teenagers in every Appalachian gas station and every Mississippi convenience store are wearing ear buds, can there be a region isolated enough to evolve its own mutated music?"  Can there, indeed.

Craig Estlinbaum

October 10, 2013 in Music, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Madonna Faces Public Insult Lawsuit in France

From The Guardian (links added):

A recent concert in Paris has proven to have fallout for Madonna who is expected to be sued by France's Front National party for screening a video with an image of right wing politician Marine Le Pen with a swastika superimposed on her face.

The public insult cause of action in France made news recently when a French court convicted a government minister of the offense in May, fining him five euros for referring to ferry operators as crooks.

Le Pen had warned Madonna against using the image in France prior to the show, so Madonna likely made a calculated risk at her show in Paris last Saturday when she defied the warning.  The story, however, is another reminder that rights Americans take for granted, like the right to free speech, generally extend only as far as our borders.

Craig Estlinbaum


July 17, 2012 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)