Cher Sues Heirs of Sonny Bono Over Music Royalties

Two of the most notable pop singers of the 1960s and 1970s were Cher and Sonny Bono, who were a musical duo on the stage and a couple off the stage. Their hits included “The Beat Goes On,” “I Got You Babe,” and “Baby Don’t Go.” When their marriage ended, Cher and Sonny agreed to evenly divide the songwriting and recording royalties for their songs. Songwriting royalties arise from the copyright in the written form of a song, while recording royalties arise from the copyright in the sound recording of the song. These royalties were considered community property under California law, which generally consists of the income and property accumulated by either spouse during a marriage. Each divorcing spouse normally is entitled to 50 percent of the community property. The agreement between Cher and Sonny thus mirrored the normal rule for dividing property in a California divorce.

Sonny died in 1998 while married to his fourth wife, Mary, who served for 15 years in the US House of Representatives. However, Cher continued to receive her share of the royalties under the agreement from the divorce. In 2016, the Bono Collection Trust sent notices of termination to music publishers regarding songs created and performed by Sonny and Cher. (Under the federal Copyright Act, the author of a work can reclaim a copyright that had been transferred to someone else after 35 years when certain conditions are met.)

The Trust allegedly took the position that these notices of termination also ended Cher’s royalty rights. Last month, the Trust told Cher that she will no longer receive her share of the royalties for these songs after the terminations take effect, and she will not be able to approve uses of the songs. Cher responded by bringing a lawsuit in a federal court in Los Angeles. She argues that Mary and the other heirs of Sonny are improperly attempting to undo the property division agreement from her divorce with Sonny. The lawsuit does not cite a specific amount of damages but alleges that they are worth $1 million or more. Cher also seeks the enforcement of the property division agreement from the divorce.

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