Professor Longhair's Legacy: A Comparative Perspective on Revendicating Movables
Northern Lights: Essays in Honour of David Carey Miller, (Douglas Bain, Rroderick Paisley and Andrew R.C. Simpson Eds., Aberdeen University Press 2016) (Forthcoming)
34 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2016 Last revised: 28 Nov 2017
Date Written: February 1, 2016
This essay addresses the problem of how an owner of a corporeal movable can recover possession of the movable from another person who detains or possesses it without right. It approaches this age-old problem through the lens of SongByrd, Inc. v. Bearsville Records, Inc., 104 F.3d 773, (5th Cir. 1997) and SongByrd, Inc. v. Estate of Grossman, 206 F.3d 172 (2d Cir. 2000). These two decisions addressed the claims of SongByrd, Inc., the successor in interest of the legendary, New Orleans, rhythm and blues pianist Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, against the estate of the legendary, rock and roll producer Albert Grossman. SongByrd sought to recover possession of several master tapes made by Byrd and other New Orleans musicians in the early 1970s that later made their way into Grossman’s possession. Without the consent of Byrd or his heirs, Grossman’s estate eventually licensed these master tapes to two record companies. One of these companies eventually released an album that earned Byrd a posthumous Grammy Award.
After providing biographical background on Byrd and Grossman and explaining how the master tapes ended up in Grossman’s possession, the essay examines the conceptual and pragmatic differences between Louisiana’s civil law response to SongByrd’s revendicatory action to recover the tapes and New York’s common law approach that framed the merits of the dispute in terms of when SongByrd’s claims for replevin and conversion began to accrue. In essence, the two SongByrd decisions illustrate the difference between a civil law acquisitive or positive prescription approach that asks whether a would-be adverse possessor has taken sufficient steps to begin to possess as owner and deserves to be awarded with ownership through prescription and a common law approach that focusses on whether the true owner has been inexcusably passive in pursuing claims to recover his property. The essay also addresses the long term impact of the respective decisions on the law of Louisiana and New York and how the controversy has been used by property law scholars in the United States to illustrate a statute of limitations/accrual approach to the claims of owners seeking to recover valuable personal property or movables.
Keywords: Property, Comparative Law, Comparative Property Law, Movables, Personal Property, Replevin, Conversion, Revendication, Revendicatory or Revindicatory Actions, Property Theory, Property Rights in Musical Performances
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