Do the royalties go on? asks judge in Sonny & Cher copyright case

Host Dick Clark looks at a monitor displaying vintage footage of Sonny & Cher before introducing Cher to perform at a taping of "American Bandstand's 50th...A Celebration" in Pasadena. REUTERS/Jim Ruymen
  • Cher said Sonny Bono's estate tried to usurp divorce agreement
  • Judge said case depends on whether copyright termination covers royalties

(Reuters) - A judge said the result of a dispute between Cher and Sonny Bono's estate over Sonny & Cher royalties likely hinges on interpreting a narrow provision of federal copyright law, and asked the parties for more information on the issue following a hearing Monday in California federal court.

Cher said in a lawsuit filed last year that Bono's estate, administered by his widow, former Republican U.S. Representative Mary Bono, improperly tried to terminate her rights in Sonny & Cher royalties. According to the complaint, the Bono Collection Trust claimed that its 2016 notices of termination to several music publishers also applied to Cher's royalty rights.

Authors can terminate transfers of their copyrights and reclaim them after 35 years in some circumstances under federal law.

Cher's lawsuit said that she and Sonny had agreed to divide royalties from songs like "I Got You Babe" and "The Beat Goes On" equally after their divorce.

She asked the court to clarify that she still had a right to the royalties, and requested at least $1 million in damages.

Bono moved to dismiss the case in December, and argued copyright law superseded Cher's rights. U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt heard arguments on the motion Monday.

Bono's attorney Daniel Schacht of Donahue Fitzgerald said Monday that the heirs are not bound to the divorce agreement, "a contract that they didn't sign," and that it did not affect the termination rights they inherited.

Cher's attorney Peter Anderson of Davis Wright Tremaine argued that the royalties are different from the "copyright rights" that the termination law applies to.

Kronstadt said the case seems to revolve around whether the termination law covers copyrights and their "associated revenue," or only the copyrights themselves.

He asked both parties to brief him on that issue specifically within two weeks.

Kronstadt also questioned terminating a hypothetical divorce agreement where, "like here," a spouse agreed to share royalties in exchange for not having to pay spousal support.

"Do you think that spouse would be remedy-less?" Kronstadt asked.

In another ongoing lawsuit, Beach Boy Brian Wilson's ex-wife asked a federal court in Los Angeles to order Wilson to pay her at least $6.7 million from song rights he reclaimed and sold to a Universal Music Corp affiliate last year.

The case is Cher v. Bono, U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, No. 2:21-cv-08157.

For Cher: Peter Anderson of Davis Wright Tremaine

For Bono: Daniel Schacht of Donahue Fitzgerald

Read more:

Cher sues Mary Bono over Sonny & Cher song royaltiesBeach Boy Brian Wilson's ex-wife sues over millions in song royalties

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Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets, for Reuters Legal. He has previously written for Bloomberg Law and Thomson Reuters Practical Law and practiced as an attorney. Contact: 12029385713