Everly Brothers

Everly Brothers perform on The Perry Como Show on Dec. 7, 1957 in New York City. 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A November court ruling over the authorship of a classic Everly Brothers song may provide incentive for songwriters -- and publishers -- to tidy up ownership records that could significantly affect their wallets and those of their heirs.

A judge ruled in Nashville that Don Everly is the sole author of "Cathy's Clown," barring the estate of the late Phil Everly from claiming a stake in the composition. The song was a No. 1 pop title for the duo, which is enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. It also became a No. 1 country single for Reba McEntire in 1989, winning BMI's Robert J. Burton Award as country's most-performed song in 1990.

The brothers were credited as co-writers when the copyright was originally filed in 1960, but Phil relinquished "all of his rights, titles, interests and claim[s]" to "Cathy's Clown," according to an agreement he signed in June 1980. Subsequently, Phil's name was removed from public credits and from royalty statements by Acuff/Rose, which owned publishing on the copyright, and BMI.

Don filed in 2011 to recapture ownership from Sony/ATV, which now owns the Acuff/Rose catalog. Phil died in 2014, and his estate filed for recapture the same year.

Don's suit maintained Phil had renounced his authorship in the song. The family held that while he had forfeited his credit and earnings, the 1980 agreement never disputed his authorship. The estate thus attempted to recapture a piece of "Cathy's Clown."

The court ruled in a Nov. 6 judgment that the statute of limitations bars the family from claiming authorship because Phil repeatedly failed to challenge Don's public claim as the sole writer.

Many band members make agreements to share co-writing credits on all of their material -- The Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the most famous example -- and the Everly case provides incentive for songwriters and publishers to shore up agreements in case authorship is ever disputed.

"If your name's been left off a song by accident and liner notes come out, you've got an obligation to speak up or forever hold your peace," said Adams and Reese partner Linda Edell Howard, Don's attorney.

The case may not be over. Phil's attorney, Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton partner Jay Bowen, plans to "ask the court to reconsider her ruling."

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