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Cher sues Sonny Bono’s widow in termination rights dispute

By | Published on Friday 15 October 2021


Cher has sued Sonny Bono’s widow Mary in a dispute over the royalties generated by Sonny and Cher’s musical output in the 1960s and 1970s. The trust that oversees Bono’s rights and legacy seemingly argues that the termination right in US copyright law has impacted on various royalty and veto rights that Cher secured in a 1978 agreement.

Cher and Bono 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 their time together, professionally and personally.

In the words of Cher’s new lawsuit: “When they divorced, plaintiff and Sonny agreed to an equal division of their community property and, to that end, in 1978 Sonny irrevocably assigned to plaintiff, as her sole and separate property throughout the world and in perpetuity, 50% of their rights in musical composition royalties, record royalties, and other assets”.

“Since 1978”, the lawsuit adds, “plaintiff has been the unchallenged owner of her 50% of all musical composition and record royalties to which plaintiff and Sonny were entitled by reason of their collaboration and marriage, including 50% of all royalties that Sonny, his businesses, and his successors, receive from those musical compositions and recordings”.

However, Mary Bono and the Bono Collection Trust now seemingly want to change that arrangement, utilising the US termination right.

US copyright law provides creators who assign their rights to business partners a one-off opportunity to terminate that assignment and reclaim their rights after 35 years. The termination only applies in the US and debate remains as to whether it applies to record contracts. However, on the songs side, American songwriters now routinely terminate old publishing deals.

And the Bono Collection Trust has been employing that right in relation to old assignment deals that Sonny Bono entered into back in the day. Cher says she wasn’t consulted about any of that, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that the Trust is now allegedly arguing that the terminations also affect the royalty and veto rights she secured in the 1978 deal.

Cher’s lawsuit states: “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”.

Cher is basically seeking court confirmation that the exercising of the termination right by the Bono Collection Trust in relation to Sonny Bono’s old copyright deals does not and cannot affect her royalty and veto rights.