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Brian Wilson’s Ex-Wife Wants a Bigger Cut of His $50M Universal Music Publishing Deal

Wilson's purported deal has sparked litigation with his ex-wife over the thorny issue of "termination rights."

Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson sold publishing rights to Universal Music Publishing Group in December for more than $50 million, according to documents disclosed in a lawsuit filed by his ex-wife, who now claims she’s owed millions from the deal.

Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford sued the Beach Boys singer last month, claiming he had paid her an $11 million cut from the Dec. 15 deal with UMPG but still owed $6.7 million more under their 1981 divorce settlement, which entitled her to half the royalties from 170 of his songs.

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Wilson’s UMPG deal, which was not reported at the time, included a $31.6 million payment for his songwriting interest and $19.2 million more for his termination interest, according to documents disclosed in Marilyn’s lawsuit. In a new court filing on Friday, attorneys for Wilson confirmed that a UMPG deal took place, but did not offer additional specifics.

Representatives for UMPG did not return calls and emails Wednesday seeking comment on Marilyn’s lawsuit and the terms of the alleged deal. A representative for Wilson declined to comment on the deal.

Wilson was married to Marilyn from 1964 to 1978, during which time he co-wrote many of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits. Under the 1981 divorce agreement, he agreed to give her half of his songwriting royalties for the songs he wrote during their marriage.

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles court in February and moved to federal court on Friday, Marilyn claimed that her ex-husband had violated that agreement – both by underpaying her cut from the UMPG deal and failing to be transparent about what she’s owed.

“Their 1981 judgment expressly awarded Marilyn an equal interest in copyrights, contract rights, and royalty rights in his name for those compositions,” the complaint reads, before asking the judge to “immediately order the payment of at least $6,704,879.”

At the core of the dispute is whether the 50-50 split in the divorce agreement applies to termination rights – a mechanism under federal copyright law that allows authors to win back control of their works decades after they sign them away. She says it does, but Wilson claims that his option to take back his rights couldn’t have existed when they signed their divorce papers.

“Brian’s ownership of the copyright termination interests Brian sold to UMPG depended entirely on Brian’s ‘postmarital efforts’ to obtain them,” his lawyers wrote Friday. “Brian … did not own those termination interests until 30 years after the 1981 judgment was entered, and long after the separation of the parties.”

In practice, the threat of termination is often used by songwriters as leverage to renegotiate their publishing deals or to win a new lump-sum payment. That’s what Wilson seemingly did with UMPG.

The publisher already owned the songwriting copyrights to Wilson’s songs, and for decades had paid Wilson a 50% royalty for them, which he then split evenly with his ex-wife. The termination right, which would have gone into effect in 2021, would have allowed him to win back control. But in the purported December deal, UMPG paid to buy out both Wilson’s songwriting share and his termination interest.

Court documents show that Wilson agreed to pay Marilyn an $11 million cut from the $31 million that UMPG purportedly paid for his songwriting interest (a pro-rated figure that accounted for certain songs that weren’t created during the marriage). But early on in talks, his lawyers argued that she was entitled to nothing from the $19.2 million sale of his termination interest.

“These additional rights were not owned by Brian during the marriage (from inception they were owned by UMPG or their predecessors) and were only acquired by Brian under federal copyright law by virtue of his surviving to the effective dates over the past few years,” Wilson’s lawyers allegedly wrote in a November email to Marilyn’s attorney, weeks before the UMPG deal purportedly closed. “Marilyn has no interest in and is not entitled to a share of any purchase price for such interests.”

Despite sticking to those arguments, Wilson’s attorneys eventually proposed to “split the difference” to settle the termination dispute by paying Marilyn $3.3 million. They hoped the offer would “tie off” the deal ahead of looming deadlines imposed by UMPG to close the deal on Dec. 15.

But that settlement offer was apparently insufficient. On Feb. 19, Marilyn filed her claims in Los Angeles court, demanding $6.7 million from the termination deal. Her attorney did not return a request for comment on the dispute.

In technical terms, Marilyn filed her case as a request under the existing docket from the couple’s divorce case, dating all the way back to 1979. Friday’s filing, by Wilson’s attorneys, transferred those claims to California federal court, where the case will now proceed to be litigated.

“This is a business dispute between Brian and his ex-wife over who owns ‘copyright termination interests’  in songs Brian wrote or helped write during their marriage,” Wilson’s legal team said in a statement. “With this filing, we are simply asking that the dispute be resolved in federal court, where we think it should be. We will have no further comment on this matter, and let the filings speak for themselves.”