The latest salvo in the copyright lawsuit between the Ray Charles Foundation and seven of the late singer’s children finds the court ruling in favor of the children. The ruling allows them to reclaim copyrights on about 60 of Charles’ classic songs, including “I Got a Woman,” “A Fool for You,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “Mary Ann.”
In a statement issued today (Jan. 29), the Ray Charles Foundation plans to appeal the U.S. District Court’s decision.
“The very clear and unmistakable intention of both Ray Charles and all his children was that, in exchange for a substantial payment, the children were not to raise any claims against their father’s estate,” states Ray Charles Foundation president Valerie Ervin. “The children who filed these termination notices violated the sacred promise they made. They took their father’s money and now come back for more. The law is very unsettled in these matters and we intend to seek resolution through the courts. Meanwhile, The Foundation will continue its substantial charitable works as intended by Mr. Charles. Ray Charles never let anything stand in the way of his work and The Foundation continues with his legacy.”
The ruling represents a major financial loss to the charitable foundation, to which the singer left all rights to his works. As for his 12 children, Charles entered into an agreement with them in 2002, stipulating that each would receive an irrevocable trust for $500,000 and waive the right to make any further claims against his estate.
Following the singer’s death in 2004, seven of the 12 – represented by Marc Toberoff of Toberoff & Assoc., P.C. – filed notices to terminate a copyright grant of the songs to Warner/Chappell Music in 2010. While Warner/Chappell didn’t challenge the notices, the foundation sued the children in March 2012, claiming the termination notices were invalid and that said songs were works made for hire. Then in October 2012, the foundation changed positions and argued the songs weren’t made for hire.
Copyright law in the United States allows rights to revert back to artists after 35 years for works created after Jan. 1, 1978. Works made-for-hire, however, cannot be reclaimed. But there is also a separate provision of the copyright law for pre-1978 work through which copyrights can be recovered for a five-year period from 56 years after the date the work was first published.
Handing down her decision on Jan. 28, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins declared the Foundation didn’t have standing to challenge the siblings’ filing of termination notices. She writes, “The Foundation is not a grantee of the rights to be terminated or its successor. Congress did not even require the statutory heirs provide it with statutory notice of the termination, let alone give it a seat at the table during the termination process.”
Collins also dismissed the foundation’s claims of breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. She also noted that the filing of the termination notices weren’t claims against the estate because the estate went through probate and was closed in 2006, before the termination notices were sent out.
In addition, Collins also granted the defendants’ Anti-SLAPP motion, entitling the children to recoup all their attorneys’ fees. “This is an important decision and not just for the children of Ray Charles,” says Toberoff, “but for artists, creators and their families because of the Anti-SLAPP component. Otherwise, companies can take an aggressive position where they can create enough economic leverage to defeat the purpose of the Copyright Act.”
A representative for the Ray Charles Foundation was contacted for comment but had not responded by the time this story was published.