Cher and Share Alike: Singer Wins Copyright Termination Lawsuit

Judge to Cher: "I Got You Paid," as court rejects Mary Bono's bid to use copyright recapture to overturn a decades-old divorce settlement.
Sonny and Cher / CBS Television

Judge to Cher: “I Got You Paid,” as court rejects Mary Bono’s bid to use copyright recapture to overturn a decades-old divorce settlement.

It took nearly three years of litigation, but in the end, Mary Bono’s copyright terminations weren’t strong enough to overcome Cher’s 1978 marital settlement agreement with Sonny Bono. In a decision issued yesterday (read here), Los Angeles federal judge John Kronstadt ruled that Mary Bono must continue paying Cher her fair share of royalties from musical compositions created during the singer’s eleven-year marriage to Sonny, finding that federal copyright termination provisions don’t trump state contract law and can’t nullify Cher’s divorce agreement.

It’s the right result, and one that I predicted back in 2021 when Cher first filed her lawsuit against Sonny Bono’s widow Mary. At that time, Mary’s representatives notified Cher that they planned to stop paying her royalties under the marital settlement agreement (MSA), arguing that the termination of Sonny’s previous third-party copyright grants also effectively terminated the stream of composition royalties flowing to Cher.

Cher v. Mary Bono

As a brief refresher, when Sonny and Cher divorced, they agreed to an equal split of their community property under California law. Under the MSA (read here), Cher was entitled to a perpetual 50% cut of any publishing revenue generated from the exploitation of the songs Sonny had written or acquired during the couple’s marriage. Sonny dutifully paid these royalties to Cher for the rest of his life, and after his death in 1998, Mary continued to do the same.

However, in 2016, Sonny Bono’s heirs issued a notice of termination under Copyright Act section 304(c) to various music publishers and other companies to whom Sonny had previously assigned rights in his musical compositions. Mary Bono then asserted that the newly recaptured copyrights were no longer subject to the MSA, prompting Cher’s lawsuit and dueling motions for summary judgment.

Mary Bono’s argument was based on the notion that copyright termination rights are inalienable: “Termination of the grant may be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.” But the proper reading of an “agreement to the contrary” is one that purports to prevent or restrict a copyright owner from exercising the right to terminate a copyright assignment. Cher didn’t challenge the Bono heirs’ right to terminate Sonny’s prior copyright grants. Instead, she argued that she’s still entitled to royalties under the parties’ contract regardless of who owns the underlying copyrights.

Copyright termination is a powerful tool that allows artists and their heirs the opportunity to regain control of their copyrighted works. But it’s important to remember that termination only applies to the grant of copyright or of “any right under a copyright.” Royalties are a financial interest in the money earned from the use of a song. They arise out of a contractual relationship, not an interest in the underlying copyright. In addition, the copyright termination statutes expressly provide that termination affects “only those rights covered by the grants that arise under this title, and in no way affects rights arising under any other Federal, State, or foreign laws.” In other words, while Sonny and Cher’s marriage may have been fraught with tension, copyright termination and state law contract principles can peacefully coexist.

Judge Kronstadt’s ruling means that Cher and her successors in interest will continue to receive publishing royalties generated from such classic compositions as “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On.” According to the ruling, more than $400,000 in royalties owed to Cher have accumulated since the dispute began—an amount no doubt dwarfed by the legal fees spent fighting over it.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a comment below or @copyrightlately on social media. In the meantime, here’s a copy of Judge Kronstadt’s order. Feel free to like and Cher with your friends.

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1 comment
  1. This is a really interesting case. I am not from america, but the result seems to be very logical even under law. The payment of royalties as a matter of fact should not stop just because the owner has changed. Royalties came from the settlement agreement, therefore, unless it is terminated, the royalties cannot stop.

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