Before his death, music legend Ray Charles gave $500,000 in trust to his children on the condition they would seek no claim to his musical estate. Now, some of the children appear to have reneged on the deal by triggering a controversial law that lets artists and their heirs reclaim copyright after 35 years.
The children want royalties to songs like “I Got a Woman” and “Mary Ann” which are now being paid to the Ray Charles Foundation, an organization that funds projects related to education and hearing impairment.
Charles, who died in 2004, has twelve children but only seven are named in the lawsuit.
The Ray Charles dispute is the second high profile case to emerge over so-called “termination rights.” The first involves the lead singer of the Village People who is in California court in an effort reclaim “YMCA” and other hits.
Studios and other content owners, who face the loss of valuable backlists, are attempting to rely on legal loopholes to avoid the transfers. One of these involves the “work for hire” rule which says artists can’t claim rights if they make the creative work as an employee.
The purpose of the 35-year law, which is part of the 1978 Copyright Act, is to ensure that artists who signed bad deals when they were young can have a second bite at the apple.
In the case of Charles, the foundation is arguing that the studios already increased royalty terms once already and his heirs can’t try to sweeten the deal a second time. It is also saying some of the songs were works for hire and that the children are barred by contract from claiming the work.
Ray Charles was the subject of a 2004 Oscar-winning biopic Ray.