Ray Charles Estate Sues Singer's Children Over Song Rights

Animosity has broken out as the R&B legend's estate now says an "enormous cloud" hangs over ownership of his songs.
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The 2004 biopic Ray didn't include this scene: Two years before legendary singer Ray Charles died, he gathered most of his 12 children (two were in jail) and told them that they would each be given an irrevocable trust for $500,000. That's all they'd get. The rest of Charles' money and assets would go to the Ray Charles Foundation and its charitable endeavors.

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The children are said to have signed off on this in a written agreement but now are allegedly reneging on their deals. Recently, some of the children attempted to terminate a copyright assignment to the music companies that collect revenue from many of Charles' songs. The estate says this isn't possible and is suing the children, seeking a declaration that the termination notices aren't valid.

It's not every day that a big recording artist's estate lines up with music companies on rights issues, but there's nothing typical about what's happening in the Charles family. There have been past lawsuits between the estate and the children, but nothing like this.

The Ray Charles Foundation is now taking the position that the songs created by Charles, who died in 2004, were created under employment to a record label. As such, these songs are allegedly works made for hire, they are "authored" by Atlantic Records and Progressive Music, and the children have no termination rights.

Fifty-one of Charles' song compositions are at stake, including such hits as "I Got a Woman," "A Fool for You" and "Mary Ann." If the notices are ruled valid, Charles' children will be able to begin recapturing the rights on some of the songs immediately, and others later, depending on whether the songs were registered as copyrights and the grants made.

The Ray Charles Foundation, which contributes to hearing-impairment charities and other educational organizations, says this is a big deal. "The situation left by Defendants' improper actions has created an enormous cloud over the future copyright ownership of the approximately fifty-one musical compositions that are at issue in this action," says the lawsuit.

The children, named in the lawsuit, include Raenee Robinson, Ray Charles Robinson Jr., David Robinson, Robert Robinson, Reatha Butler and Robyn Moffett.

Ray Charles signed his original contracts with Atlantic Records in the 1950s. According to the complaint, the contracts stated that Charles would be hired as an employee, the recordings would be subject to Atlantic's approval and that they would become their property. By signing, Charles got an advance payment based on the songs he would record and a royalty based on the number of records sold. In addition, Charles also signed a publishing agreement with Progressive Music Publishing Co., a subsidiary of Atlantic.

The Copyright Act was amended in 1976, giving artists the right to terminate rights after a certain period and reclaim the latter portion of a work's copyright term.

But termination provisions don't apply to works made for hire. The Ray Charles Foundation believes that the songs in question fall under this classification.

Even if they don't, the Ray Charles Foundation says that in 1980, the singer signed a new deal with Progressive's successor-in-interest, Rightsong Music Inc. (now belonging to Warner/Chappell Music), which allegedly constitutes a renegotiation of the transfer of most of the songs. The plaintiff cites this agreement as another reason why the termination notices aren't valid and further alleges that the notices were in error by not referring to this superseding agreement.

The case now goes before a California federal judge, who has to confront a mess of a situation involving various family members claiming pieces of the rights. If the situation is left unresolved, says the foundation, it "will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to exploit the valuable copyrighted assets at issue because would-be third-party licensees would have valid doubts as to who is the proper copyright holder of these compositions. Thus, there is an extreme likelihood that the value of these copyrighted assets will be permanently damaged."

Besides seeking a declaration of the invalidity of the termination notices, the foundation also wishes to punish the children with a demand for actual and compensatory damages at least $500,000 each.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner