Public domain blues number performed by Bo Carter (Chatmon)
Public domain blues number performed by Eric Clapton
Comment by Charles Cronin
In 2015 the plaintiff (Estate of Chatmon represented by Miles Floyd) in this case, filed a virtually identical claim against Rod Stewart in a federal court in Atlanta (Miles Floyd v. Rod Stewart, et al.). Both disputes turn on the legitimacy of the plaintiff’s claim of copyright ownership of a blues chestnut variously titled “Corrine, Corrina, “Alberta, Alberta”, “Maggie”, etc.
As mentioned in the comment on this site for the identical dispute with Rod Stewart, there are extant recordings of performances of this number made well before 1929 when the song was registered with the Copyright Office. “Blind Lemon” Jefferson recorded his performance of the song in 1926, and there were publications of sheet music and audio recordings of the number as early as 1918. Since then dozens of performers working in various popular idioms (blues, rock, western) have recorded the song.
Almost certainly, it never occurred to most of these performers -- particularly those lesser known or long-deceased like Cab Calloway, Art Tatum, and various Cajun and swing bands -- to seek permission from, or pay royalties to, the plaintiff. It is only now, after universally known, and financially flush, performers like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, and Rod Stewart have benefitted from their performances of the song, that the plaintiff appears to have awakened to the possibility of capitalizing upon an attenuated ownership claim, and a copyright registration of questionable validity.
The registration, from 1929, establishes State Street Music as the copyright owner, and J.M. Williams and Bo Chatman as authors of the song. This suggests that the authors assigned their copyright to State Street (apparently an enterprise owned by Williams) and the complaint correctly notes that only assignments that have been recorded at the Copyright Office are legally valid. According to the complaint, there is no record of such an assignment.
But the complaint also asserts -- without support -- that Williams was well known for his overreaching and unscrupulous business practices. If true, surely if Williams had attempted to hoodwink Bo Chatman out of ownership interest in the song, he would have been just as likely to attempt to deceive the Copyright Office to provide him a copyright registration for a work in the public domain.