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Eric Clapton sued for $5 million over incorrectly named Unplugged song

By | Published on Friday 28 October 2016

Eric Clapton

Eric Clapton is on the receiving end of an interesting if slightly complicated new copyright lawsuit, reports of which first surfaced earlier this month and more information on which has become available this week. He is being sued by the step-grandson of the late blues artist Bo Carter, who claims Clapton incorrectly named and credited a cover on his ‘MTV Unplugged’ album, depriving his step-grandfather’s estate of royalties.

The Clapton record’s tracklisting includes the song ‘Alberta’, which is credited as being a specific arrangement of a traditional song by Huddle Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly. But Miles Floyd, whose mother married Carter’s son Ezell Chatmon, says the song Clapton performs is actually his step-grandfather’s work ‘Corrine, Corrina’, albeit using the name “Alberta” rather than “Corrina” in the lyrics.

According to Floyd’s lawsuit, Carter registered the copyright in ‘Corrine, Corrina’ in 1929 and the song was subsequently covered and reworked many times. Carter himself, when performing the piece with his group Mississippi Shieks, sometimes inserted the name “Alberta” instead of “Corrina” into the lyrics, in doing so creating a second alternative version of the song, which is what – Floyd’s legal papers claim – Clapton performed during his MTV Unplugged show in 1992.

Floyd then claims that, while Lead Belly did record a song called ‘Alberta’ in 1940, that was not musically similar to Carter’s song, or that which Clapton performed unplugged five decades later. Clapton, therefore, should have credited the song he sung called ‘Alberta’ to Carter, and royalties should have filtered through to the blues man’s estate.

Before Chatmon died in 1991 Floyd says that he promised his step-father that he would one day investigate Carter’s catalogue of music and what royalties may or may not be due, and that he began doing just that following his mother’s death.

Confirming the new lawsuit against Clapton, on which Warner Music and numerous other music companies are also named as defendants, Floyd’s legal rep Barry Shrum told The Tennessean this week: “This is a situation where you have the estate, the rightful owners of Bo’s intellectual property, just trying to get what’s rightfully theirs and get credit where credit is due. Bo created this song and started, in essence, a genre in music and influenced many performers in the future, and he deserves that credit”.

However, beyond assessing the facts as presented in Floyd’s legal action, there are other complexities here. Law lecturer Charles Cronin, also interviewed by The Tennessean, says he investigated Carter’s copyright claim over ‘Corrine, Corrina’ when Floyd sued Rod Stewart last year in relation to his recording of the song in 2013, a lawsuit subsequently dropped.

Cronin reckons that what Carter registered in 1929 was his version of a public domain folk song, citing documents that suggest another artist released a recording of ‘Corrine, Corrina’ as early as 1926. That would mean that subsequent variations of the piece could be reworks of the public domain original rather than Carter’s specific version, which would hinder the copyright claim now being made by Floyd.

The academic wrote of the lawsuit against Stewart: “In short, there is no single or identifiable author for ‘Corinna Corinna’. The many versions of it – including Rod Stewart’s – simply represent accretions to a public domain folk song. The fact that the plaintiff may have been the first to secure and renew a copyright registration for his version of the song doesn’t prevent others from using what appears to be a work in the public domain”.

Neither Clapton nor any of the music firms sued by Floyd have responded as yet to the lawsuit, which was filed earlier this month and demands a credit for Carter on the ‘MTV Unplugged’ album and back payment of royalties, with a claim for damages that tops $5 million.