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Family of Bluesman Loses Bid for Photo Royalties

(CN) - The family of blues legend Robert Johnson cannot recover royalties from a pair of photos of the musician, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled.

Johnson was penniless when he died in 1938. Since he had no assets, no estate was set up in his name.

His music gained popularity after he died, particularly in the 1960s after several British guitarists, including Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, cited him as an influence.

Music producer Steven LaVere met with Johnson's half-sister, Carrie Thompson, in 1973 about using unpublished photos of Johnson to accompany a new release of his music.

Thompson allowed LaVere to have negatives made of a photo of Johnson wearing a fedora, a pinstriped suit and holding his Gibson guitar.

Thompson hired LaVere to market the photo, along with a dimestore photo-booth portrait of Johnson holding his guitar in his hand and a cigarette in his mouth.

According to the agreement, Thompson would retain the original photos and receive 50 percent of the royalties from LaVere's use of the pictures.

LaVere and Thompson made a deal with Sony in 1974 for the use of the photos as well as Johnson's music and biographical information, for a collection called Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings.

Sony released the music in 1990, and it sold 1 million copies. Sony paid LaVere $1.5 million in royalties.

Thompson died in 1983, leaving her estate to her half-sister, Annye Anderson and her grandson, Robert Harris. They opened an estate for Johnson in 1989, believing they were the singer's sole heirs.

However, a chancery court ruled in 1998 that Claud Johnson, the biological son of Robert Johnson, was the singer's sole heir.

LaVere paid the fees that were due to the Johnson estate, which had all of its assets transferred to Claud Johnson in 1999.

Anderson and Harris argued that the photographs belonged to Thompson personally, not to the Johnson estate.

They sued Claud Johnson, Sony, LaVere, and LaVere's company, Delta Haze Corp. alleging claims of fraud, conversion, unjust enrichment and breach of fiduciary duty.

The trial court ruled in the defendants' favor, and the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the ruling in a decision written by Justice Jess Hays Dickinson.

He stated that Anderson and Harris could not argue on appeal that the defendants had waived their right to present a defense based on the statute of limitations.

"Anderson and Harris must have first raised this argument in the trial court - which they did not. We will not consider issues raised for the first time on appeal," he wrote.

Dickinson also wrote that Anderson and Harris did not file their lawsuit within the three-year statute of limitations.

"Also, we note that during the heirship proceedings, Anderson and Harris did not claim the photographs belonged to Thompson. Rather, they claimed the photographs were assets of the Johnson estate," Dickinson wrote.

He added that the plaintiffs claimed they thought they were Johnson's sole heirs and thus entitled to the photos.

"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," Dickinson wrote.

Before Johnson died at the age 27, he laid the groundwork for rock 'n' roll with songs like "Love in Vain" and "Cross Road Blues." He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the "Early Influence" category, in 1986.


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