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Ray Charles Foundation Sues Singers’ Children Over Copyright Claims

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Ray Charles by Luiz Fernando Reis on Flickr

Ray Charles by Luiz Fernando Reis on Flickr

According to the Ray Charles Foundation, the late singer’s children became beneficiaries of a $500,000 trust when their father died, and they, in return, agreed not to bring future claims against their father’s estate. Seven of Charles’s children are now trying to  reclaim copyrights on some of Charles’s songs, and are being sued for it.

For their part, Charles’s children are making their copyright claims under a portion of the 1976 Copyright Act that allows copyright holders or their heirs to reclaim copyrights that had previously been assigned. This portion of the 1976 law is commonly called the “termination” provision.

Normally, “copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years,” though terms are different for works published before 1978. The “termination” provision covers only certain works, and on very strict timelines.

The Foundation’s complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, is over Charles’s children’s attempts to reclaim copyright in 51 songs written or co-written by Charles, including “I Got a Woman” and “What’d I Say.” The Foundation maintains that Charles’ children already agreed not to pursue claim against the estate, and in addition, that Charles himself used the option to reclaim rights in 1980 when he reached an agreement with his publisher that included the copyrights on some of his music.

These are two distinct claims by the Foundation: one goes to the question of the agreement between the Foundation and Charles’s children; the other goes to the question of how termination in fact functions—a question that is sure to be asked a lot over the coming years, as more and more works come up for potential termination.  (Works by Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen are among those that will definitely test the law.  The heirs of the creators of Superman have already prevailed in termination suits.)

Other songs the children are claiming copyright ownership for, the Foundation says, were “work for hire,” which means that the publisher, not the songwriter, is the copyright owner. This, again, is an interpretation of copyright law that is sure to see a lot of action in the coming years. (Some of Bob Marley’s songs were deemed “works made for hire” and therefore the copyright was held to be owned by his record label, not his heirs.)

The Ray Charles Foundation’s stated purpose is:

to administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes; to encourage, promote and educate, through grants to institutions and organizations, as to the causes and cures for diseases and disabilities of the hearing impaired and to assist organizations and institutions in their social educational and academic advancement of programs for the youth, and carry on other charitable and educational activities associated with these goals as allowed by law.

The Foundation alleges in the lawsuit that it “depends upon the income received from the [song copyrights] and contract rights to continue the wishes of Ray Charles.”

There is no record of the Charles’ children response to the lawsuit at this point.

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April 23rd, 2012 at 12:18 pm