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Cher’s dispute with Sonny Bono estate over termination right continues

By | Published on Tuesday 26 April 2022


The widow of Sonny Bono has urged a Californian court to throw out a recent legal claim made by Cher, which centres on how the pesky termination right in US copyright law impacts on a deal done in the 1970s after Bono and Cher split up both professionally and personally.

Bono and Cher began working together in the early 1960s, subsequently marrying and then enjoying much success together in both music and on TV. However, the marriage ended in 1975, and their double act ended soon after. Following all that, a deal was done in 1978 that provided Cher with a 50% share in the royalties being generated by the songs and recordings that had been released during the couple’s time together, professionally and personally.

That deal has been in force ever since, but – it seems – Bono’s widow Mary and the Bono Collection Trust that oversees the late musician’s estate is now seeking to change that arrangement.

The Trust has been using the termination right – which allows creators to eventually terminate old deals via which they assigned their copyrights to other entities – in order to claim more control over some of Bono’s catalogue. Not only that, but the Trust also argues that the terminations impact on the royalty and veto rights Cher secured in the 1978 deal.

Seeking court confirmation that, on that latter point, the Trust is wrong, Cher filed a lawsuit last year stating: “This action has become necessary because now, more than 40 years after plaintiff received her 50% ownership of her and Sonny’s community property, Sonny’s fourth wife and widow, defendant Mary Bono, claims that a wholly inapplicable statutory termination provision of the Copyright Act of 1976 has undone plaintiff’s ownership of her royalties from the songs and recordings that she and Sonny made famous during their marriage, and deprived plaintiff of other long-established rights under the 1978 agreement”.

But, according to Law360, in a hearing yesterday legal reps for Mary Bono argued that the Trust’s interpretation of the termination right is the correct one, and that when US Congress created the termination right it intended said right to also cover any contractural arrangement regarding royalties.

For their part, legal reps for Cher insisted that precedent in the US courts favoured their position, that the termination right only applies to the ownership of an actual copyright, not any contractural royalty rights linked to the copyright.

Having heard both sides’ oral arguments, the judge overseeing the case asked legal reps for Mary Bono and Cher to both submit written briefs outlining their legal arguments regarding the reach and technicalities of the termination right.

He also mused that – if the termination right does ultimately impact on Cher’s royalty rights – that might result in the 1970s agreement needing to be revisited, given the royalty share in that agreement was partly provided in lieu of spousal support.

The case continues.