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Cher’s Royalties Lawsuit Against Sonny Bono’s Widow Can Move Forward, Judge Says

Taken from | Author: Bill Donahue | Date: 17 March 2023

A federal judge refused to dismiss Cher's case against Mary Bono — a messy mix of royalties, termination rights and divorce law.

More than a year after Cher sued Sonny Bono’s widow Mary Bono over royalties from “I Got You Babe” and other hits, a federal judge has issued an initial ruling refusing to dismiss the case.

Cher claims that her 1978 divorce deal with Sonny gave her a permanent 50% cut from songs written before they split, but that Mary recently stopped paying after she invoked copyright’s termination right. Mary’s attorneys say she was entitled to do so, and that the case should be dismissed.

In a split decision on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt trimmed part of the case, saying any royalties from recording rights regained by Mary should stop going to Cher. But when it comes to the bigger question of the underlying musical compositions, the judge said the divorce agreement might entitle Cher to keep receiving those payments.

“The composition royalties appear to arise solely from the [divorce settlement],” the judge wrote. “On this record, it has not presently been established that [Cher]’s rights to the composition royalties have been terminated.”

In a statement to Billboard following the ruling, Mary’s attorney Daniel Schacht said: “We are happy that the court recognized some of the flaws in Cher’s case at this preliminary stage, and we look forward to resolving the remainder of the case.”

Cher’s attorney declined to comment on the decision.

Sonny and Cher started performing together in 1964 and married in 1967, rising to fame with major hits like “I Got You Babe,” “The Beat Goes On” and “Baby Don’t Go.” But the pair split up in 1974, finalizing their divorce with a settlement agreement in 1978. Under that deal, Sonny retained ownership of their music rights, but Cher was granted a half-share of all royalties.

Bono died in 1998 as the result of a skiing accident, leaving Mary in control of those copyrights. And in 2016, she invoked the termination right — a provision of the federal Copyright Act that allows creators or their heirs to win back control of rights they signed away decades prior. Mary sent such notices to Sonny and Cher’s publishers, taking back full control of those copyrights.

Five years later, Cher filed her lawsuit — seeking a ruling that the divorce agreement was still in effect and that she was still owed her 50% cut of royalties, regardless of who owns the copyrights now. Mary then fired back a few months later, arguing that the case should be dismissed. Her lawyers said that termination rights were designed to trump all preexisting agreements, including a divorce agreement.

“Cher’s position would subvert Congress’ intent in enacting the copyright termination provisions: to ensure that authors and authors’ heirs, not grantees or ex-spouses, would benefit from the extended term of copyright,” Bono’s attorneys wrote in December 2021.

In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Kronstadt denied that motion when it comes to the copyrights for Sonny’s underlying musical compositions, citing language in the divorce agreement that such royalties would be owed “from all sources perpetually.” Based on that language, the judge said the issue “cannot be resolved” until both sides have the chance to offer more evidence and arguments.

The judge did dismiss Cher’s lawsuit to the extent that it deals with royalties from any recording rights that had been terminated by Mary, since Judge Kronstadt said those provisions of the divorce agreement were tied to specific record deals that were no longer in existence. But the extent to which Mary’s termination notices actually went to record companies is unclear; earlier filings in the case only indicated that such notices has gone to publishers.

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