Deaths in Entertainment Become Problems for the Federal Judiciary

A judge decides that the nuances of copyright law gives her the ability to become involved in a 12-year-long James Brown family feud.
Illustration by: Taylor Callery

Musicians, book authors and Hollywood scriptwriters die. That's inevitable. What may change is the venue where heirs fight over the spoils.

Take a 57-page decision on Wednesday in South Carolina federal court.

The dispute concerns James Brown, the "Godfather of Soul," who died at the age of 73 in 2006. In the parlance of obituary writing, Brown was survived by an alleged widow, an alleged son, plus nine more children and grandchildren from broken marriages. After Brown died, questions arose about multiple bigamy, DNA tests and a quarreling family attempting to resolve entitlement to an estate valued as high as $100 million. For full details, see our prior article about the 12-year drama that is the James Brown family feud.

What matters most for the latest decision is the allegation that Brown's last wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, conspired with the administrators of the estate to come to secretive royalty agreements for Brown's songs to the detriment of others in the Brown clan.

In various forms, the dispute had been playing out until recently in a local probate court before judges accustomed to squabbling over inheritances. But thanks to a change in copyright law in the mid-1970s, the James Brown family feud has shifted to a federal court. It likely won't be the last estate battle to do so.

In 1976, Congress decided that authors or their heirs should have the ability to terminate copyright grants during the late stage of the copyright term. These individuals needed to wait 35 years and go through a complicated set of protocols to reclaim rights from publishers and studios.

Flash forward to today, and the turning of the statutory clock has introduced all sorts of novel issues regarding copyright termination. Just yesterday, for example, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals was reading Italian law to figure out whether famed composer Ennio Morricone could grab back rights to some of his film scores. (He could.)

In the Brown case, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs reached her own novel decision.

Facing a lawsuit demanding adjudication of copyright ownership and the invalidation of various agreements, Hynie and the administrators brought a motion to dismiss. They challenged whether a South Carolina federal court really had jurisdiction to handle the dispute or whether this matter, like centuries of prior probate fights, should be resolved in state court.

That had the judge turning her attention to the allegation that Hynie has transferred the majority of proceeds from Brown's termination interests in the context of a particular aspect of copyright law — that the exercise of termination rights be permitted "not withstanding any agreement to the contrary."

As such, the judge ruled that interpretation of the Copyright Act is "inevitable" and that the "Copyright Act's language provides the standard upon which to evaluate the alleged secret agreements."

Since copyright law is a federal statute, the judge decided her court does have subject-matter jurisdiction, further finding that plaintiffs have standing under Article III of the U.S. Constitution "because they possess an injury-in-fact, traceability, and redressability," because they've allegedly been deprived of proceeds from Brown's copyright grants and require an allocation of their termination rights.

The administrators of the James Brown Estate called for a probate exception to the federal court's exercise of jurisdiction in accordance with the Supreme Court's 2006 decision in Marshall v. Marshall, which will be familiar to most as the one in which former Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith fought over her inheritance.

Childs responded that the probate exception is a "narrow" doctrine, applying when a court is required to annul a will, administer a decedent's estate or dispose of property in custody of a state probate court. Childs didn't accept the assertion that this is what she was being asked to do.

For her reasoning, see the full decision here.