SAN FRANCISCO — A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the Rolling Stones improperly borrowed two of their songs — “Love in Vain” and “Stop Breakin’ Down” — from legendary Mississippi blues artist Robert Johnson.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling late Monday that the Stones’ former record label, ABKCO Music, was wrong to assume that the songs by Johnson were in the public domain simply because his record company failed to copyright them in the 1930s. Johnson, who died in 1938, is considered one of the creators of the Delta blues.
The case is now due to return to a Los Angeles court to determine whether the small record company Delta Haze can claim any financial compensation from the Stones’ version of the songs, which appeared on the albums “Let It Bleed” and “Exile on Main Street.”
The members of the Rolling Stones were not themselves named in the lawsuit.
Lawyers for ABKCO Music argued that the songs were part of a common musical library used by many artists working in the Depression-era South.
Free for all
“Virtually none of the blues music then was copyrighted by anyone,” attorney Donald Zakarin told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They all viewed it as available to anyone.”
Judge Pamela Ann Rymer, writing the unanimous opinion for the three judge panel, found that a 1997 law governing the extension of common-law copyright to old music applied to Johnson’s work — voiding ABKCO’s claim that it was now in the public domain.
Johnson, who was born in 1911 and traveled widely in the South, died at the age of 27. There are only two known recordings of his original work, which were re-released in 1990 in a two-CD boxed set by Columbia Records.