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Anderson v. LaVere

Supreme Court of Mississippi

February 20, 2014

ANNYE C. ANDERSON, AS PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE AND LEGATEE OF THE ESTATE OF CARRIE H. THOMPSON, DECEASED; AND ROBERT M. HARRIS, LEGATEE OF THE ESTATE OF CARRIE H. THOMPSON, DECEASED
v.
STEPHEN C. LAVERE, DELTA HAZE CORPORATION, A NEVADA CORPORATION; SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT, INC., A DELAWARE CORPORATION, AND CLAUD L. JOHNSON

Page 405

COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: LEFLORE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT. DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/23/2012. TRIAL JUDGE: HON.W. ASHLEY HINES.

FOR APPELLANT: JAMES W. SHELSON, REUBEN V. ANDERSON, ROBERT GREGG MAYER, STEPHEN E. NEVAS.

FOR APPELLEE: RICHARD A. OAKES, ANTHONY KORNARENS, ANITA K. MODAK-TRURAN, JOHN W. KITCHENS.

BEFORE DICKINSON, P.J., CHANDLER AND PIERCE, JJ. WALLER, C.J., RANDOLPH, P.J., LAMAR, CHANDLER, PIERCE, KING AND COLEMAN, JJ., CONCUR. KITCHENS, J., NOT PARTICIPATING.

OPINION

Page 406

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - CONTRACT

DICKINSON, PRESIDING JUSTICE.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

¶1. Legendary blues musician Robert Johnson died in 1938 without a will. The legatees of Johnson's deceased half-sister sought to recover royalties and fees from the use of two photographs of Johnson. Among the several reasons the trial court denied their claim was that the statute of limitations had expired. We affirm.

FACTS

¶2. When Johnson died intestate on August 16, 1938, he had no money and appeared to have left no assets to distribute to his heirs, so no estate was opened at that time. But the increasing popularity of Johnson's music over the years following his death led Steven LaVere, a music producer from Tennessee who owns Delta Haze Corporation, to contact Johnson's half-sister, Carrie Thompson, about previously unpublished photographs of Johnson. Believing Thompson to be Johnson's only heir, LaVere requested a meeting with Thompson to discuss possibly using the photographs to launch a new release of Johnson's music.

¶3. On June 12, 1973, Thompson met with LaVere and showed him a photo taken by Hooks Brothers Photography in Memphis, Tennessee, which depicted Johnson wearing a pin-striped suit, fedora hat, and polished dress shoes, while holding his Gibson guitar. Thompson allowed LaVere to take this photo -- later to become known as the " Hooks Brothers" photograph -- to have negatives made.

¶4. On LaVere's second visit, Thompson showed him a different photograph that depicted Johnson in front of a curtain with a cigarette in his mouth, holding a Gibson guitar. This photograph -- which appears to be a self-portrait taken at a photo booth in the 1930s -- later became known as the " dime store photo."

¶5. Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. (" Sony" ) -- owner of the master of Johnson's recordings [1] -- already had published albums of Johnson's music. Based on the discovery of the photographs and biographical information of Johnson's life, LaVere pitched the idea of rereleasing Johnson's music to John Hammond, then vice-president of Sony.[2] LaVere initiated these discussions with Sony in the summer of 1973.

¶6. LaVere's negotiations with Sony prompted negotiations between LaVere and Thompson, through counsel. On June 25, 1974, Thompson appointed LaVere as her agent, granting him the right

to do any and all things necessary, and to execute any and all documents, contracts, file copyrights, and institute litigation and any and all other things necessary

Page 407

or proper to protect my rights or the rights of my deceased brother.

¶7. Thompson's attorney drafted this agreement to allow LaVere to continue negotiations with Sony pertaining to the rerelease of Johnson's recordings. Then, on November 20, 1974, LaVere and Thompson entered into a comprehensive agreement (" the 1974 Agreement" ), which included a royalties and fees provision.

¶8. The 1974 Agreement stated that Thompson, as Johnson's known living heir, agreed to transfer to LaVere " all of her right, title and interest, including all common law and statutory copyrights, in and to the musical works and recordings of Robert L. Johnson, a photograph of Robert L. Johnson taken by Hooks Brothers Photography in Memphis, Tennessee . . . [and] a small photograph of Johnson with a guitar . . . ." But ...


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