Blues fans may have heard about the dispute involving photographs of the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. The dispute, which has been going on for nearly 25 years, involves the question of who has rights to the photographs. On one side of the dispute are the descendants of Johnson’s half-sister Carrie Harris Thompson. On the other side is Sony Music Entertainment; Delta Haze Corp., and Johnson’s sole heir, Claud Johnson.
According to Delta Haze, Thompson signed a contract back in 1974 that assigned all her rights to Johnson’s work, photos and other material in exchange for 50 percent of all royalties. Delta Haze then turned around and struck a deal with CBS Records to release a collection of Johnson’s 29 recorded tunes. Sony, which eventually acquired CBS, released a box set of those recordings, selling over one million copies and earning a Gammy in 1990 for Best Historical Album.
It has been determined by a lower court that the royalties are to go to Claud Johnson, since he is the late bluesman’s sole heir. But Thompson’s heirs—she died in 1983—argue that the photographs were Thompson’s personal property from which others profited, and that they are entitled to royalties. The issue, then, is whether the photos were the personal property of Thompson, and this has yet to be decided. If so, her heirs are presumably owed royalties.
When musicians, authors and other artists leave behind artistic works that have the potential to continue earning income, things can get sticky with hears. In a similar way, this can happen with family businesses as well. This is why it is so important to engage in proper planning to ensure that assets are disposed in the most sensible way. Proper planning cannot dispel all possibility of disputes, but it can certainly go a long way toward doing so.