Legal and Management

James Brown’s Heirs Settle 15-Year Dispute Over Soul Icon’s Estate, Song Publishing Rights

James Brown
David Redfern/Redferns

James Brown photographed on the set of 'Ready Steady Go!' at Wembley Television Studios in London on March 11, 1966.

The Godfather of Soul’s affairs appear to be in order, finally, after years of legal wrangling between his descendants.

Nearly 15 years after James Brown's death, his children and grandchildren have reached a settlement over a legal dispute involving the Godfather of Soul's lucrative holdings. Brown had specified in a 2000 will that he would bequeath little to his heirs, other than a $2 million scholarship fund for his grandchildren, but his daughters Deanna Brown-Thomas and Yamma Brown, among others, found a way to inherit potentially millions of dollars.

Although the July 9 settlement terms are not public, several of Brown's children and grandchildren are likely to split up termination rights on the copyrights to Brown's 900 compositions, which according to U.S. law cannot be bequeathed as part of a will. These are potentially incredibly valuable -- the publisher portion of Brown's songs, including classics like "I Got You (I Feel Good)" and "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," are due to "terminate" and revert to Brown's control under U.S. copyright law starting in the next few years. That allows the heirs to license them to commercials, TV shows, movies and video games or sell them outright.

Classic songs are worth big money these days -- Bob Dylan sold his catalog to Universal Music for a reported $300 million last December, Paul Simon and Stevie Nicks have made similar deals, and Merck Mercuriadis' Hipgnosis Songs Fund has spent more than $1 billion on catalogs containing compositions by Al Green, Rihanna, Beyonce and many others.

Likely to be shut out of this familial windfall is Tommie Rae Hynie, who claimed to be Brown's wife even though, as South Carolina courts determined later, she was married to another man at the time of her marriage to Brown. The singer himself was aware of this, filing at one point for an annulment before backing off when Hynie agreed in 2004 to "forever waive any claim to a common-law marriage," according to court documents.

For much of the 15-year legal dispute over Brown's estate and holdings, Hynie, a singer who reportedly lives in the U.K., was the central character, going so far as to agree to deals with publisher Warner Chappell to sell termination rights for five songs for $1.875 million, according to court documents. Brown-Thomas and the other children and grandchildren sued over these deals in U.S. district court in California in 2018, calling them "illegal back-room agreements deliberately designed to destroy, circumvent and/or dilute plaintiffs' interests."

In June 2020, the Supreme Court in Brown's home state of South Carolina ruled Hynie was not the singer's legal wife, wrenching away much of her influence over the estate discussions. She was part of the July 9 settlement, but experts say she is unlikely to profit from Brown's holdings. (Hynie's son, James Brown II, claims to be Brown's heir, and the rest of Brown's children and grandchildren have not objected, which means he will likely take a share of the revenue.)

In Brown's will, he also bequeathed millions of dollars to fund scholarships for underprivileged children in Georgia and South Carolina, although they have not received any funds to date. One possible outcome of the settlement is that Brown-Thomas and the other heirs will use the money from the song termination rights to fund Brown's estate and trust, which will pay out the scholarships. Some say this could potentially happen by late 2021 or early 2022.

One likely outcome from the settlement is that Brown's estate will begin working together and making deals in a unified way, a la Prince, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson, after years of acrimony. Dylan Malagrinò, an associate professor at the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina, told the New York Times: "Chances are, they will speak in one voice: 'This is the way we go forward.'"