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Brian Wilson sued by ex-wife over $50 million song rights deal with Universal

By | Published on Thursday 31 March 2022

Brian Wilson

Brian Wilson is involved in a legal battle with his ex-wife Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford over a $50 million deal he signed late last year in relation to his songs catalogue with Universal Music Publishing.

According to legal papers, there were two elements to the mega-bucks deal between Wilson and the publisher, which already controlled his songs catalogue (although Wilson and his father originally set up their own publishing business in the early 1960s, that was subsequently sold with the catalogue ultimately ending up with Universal).

The first element of the big deal saw Universal acquire the songwriter share of income Wilson retained under his original publishing deal. The second element related to Wilson’s termination right under American copyright law, via which he could seek to reclaim the US rights in his songs. But, instead of doing that, he took a one-off payment from the major. Of the $50 million, nearly $32 million related to the first element, and the rest to the second element.

The dispute with Wilson-Rutherford stems from the couple’s 1981 divorce settlement. That settlement gave Wilson-Rutherford a 50% interest in any income Wilson received from the songs he wrote during their marriage, so from 1964 to 1978. Which means she needs to be cut into the big old Universal deal.

Wilson has paid his ex-wife $11 million in relation to the first element of the deal, which is 50% of the slice of the $32 million that was allocated to songs written between 1964 and 1978. However, there is a dispute over whether she should also be due a share of the monies paid in relation to the termination right.

Brian Wilson’s lawyers argue that the 1981 divorce settlement doesn’t apply to the termination right part of the deal, because he didn’t have that right at the point the settlement was signed.

After all, the right to terminate a past copyright assignment doesn’t kick in until a certain number of years after that assignment took place – 35 years for deals signed since 1978, but 56 years for deals – like Wilson’s original publishing deals – that pre-date 1978.

All that said, it was the 1976 US Copyright Act that put the current termination right rules in place, so it did exist as a future right in 1981.

All of which means Wilson-Rutherford reckons she’s due a cut of the termination right payment, but Wilson reckons she is not. Although he did seemingly offer a $3.3 million payoff in an effort to settle the dispute, but without success. Wilson-Rutherford, apparently, wants $6.7 million.

All this went legal in February when Wilson-Rutherford sued in the LA courts, meanwhile – according to Billboard – last week Wilson’s lawyers filed papers with the California federal court, where the case will now seemingly proceed. Fun times.