Ray Charles’ children win copyright dispute

Musician's family reclaims control of some of his best-known works

A group of Ray Charleschildren have prevailed against the Ray Charles Foundation’s legal effort to prevent them from reclaiming copyrights on about 60 of his best-known compositions.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins threw out a number of claims that the legendary singer’s namesake foundation had filed against the children after they filed termination notices in 2010 to reclaim ownership of the works from Warner/Chappell Music. Warner/Chappell has not challenged the validity of the termination notices, but the Ray Charles Foundation did, as it reaps royalties from the copyrighted music.

But Collins ruled that the foundation lacked standing to challenge the children’s effort to recover the music. A 1976 revision of the Copyright Act gives authors the ability to reclaim their works assigned to publishers or other grantees after a certain period of time, although works “made for hire” cannot be reclaimed. Heirs are allowed to recover works of authors who are deceased.

Collins did not make a judgment on whether all, some or any of Charles’ works were made “for hire.” Rather, she wrote that “because the foundation is not a grantee of the rights to be terminated or its successor, Congress did not even require the statutory heirs provide it with statutory notice of the termination, let alone give it a seat at the table during the termination process.”

The children were represented by Marc Toberoff, and the foundation was represented by Yakub Hazzard and Rex Glensy.

Collins also struck the foundation’s state law claims of breach of contract and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The foundation had said that Charles’ children entered into an agreement with the singer in 2002 under which he set up a $500,000 trust for each of them and they waived “any right to make a claim against his estate.”

Collins, however, said that the children’s filing of termination notices “could not be claims ‘against’ Charles’s estate because his estate went through probate and was closed in 2006,” before the termination notices were sent out.

She also supported the children’s motion to strike the foundation’s state-law claims on the grounds that the filing of the termination notices fell under California’s anti-SLAPP law, which is designed to discourage the filing of lawsuits as a way to chill expression through costly litigation. She noted that the heirs were merely trying to establish a property right under federal statute. She also ruled that the foundation had to pay attorneys’ fees.

Seven of Charles’ 12 children were defendants in the case. A provision of the Copyright Act allows them to recover works 56 years after they were originally published. They started reclaiming works last year, including “Blackjack,” “Come Back Baby,” “Fool for You,” “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “I Got a Sweetie,” “I’ve Got a Woman,” “Mary Ann” and “This Little Girl of Mine.”