Reversion claim pits Charles’ children against his charitable trust

November 2012

Music publishing


In a battle over the rights to Ray Charles’ songs, the charitable foundation that was bequeathed the singer’s money and assets is in danger of losing the substantial revenues that “I Got a Woman,” “A Fool for You,” “Mary Ann” and Charles’ other hits generate each year. The Hollywood Reporter says that this is because Charles’ children, who largely were cut out of the will, are attempting to terminate a copyright assignment for the songs to Warner/Chappell Music. If the songs reverted to the children, then the Ray Charles Foundation no longer receive royalties. In late March, facing this potential loss, the Foundation, as ‘beneficial owner’ of the songs (rather than Warner/Chappell) sued the children, seeking a declaration that the termination notices were invalid. To make this argument, the estate originally argued that Charles’ songs were made under an employment agreement with the music publisher. As such, these songs are allegedly works made for hire, “authored” by the predecessor to Warner/Chappell, and the children have no termination rights under the US Copyright Act that allows for reversion after 35 years. Post 1978 songwriters can reclaim ownership of copyrights they previously assigned to a music publisher 35 years after their original deal. The Foundation now seems to have moved back from this position but its right to even bring the action remains in doubt. That’s said, many would relish a judgment on what constitutes a ‘work for hire’ and whether or not traditional music publishing and recording agreement are indeed works for hire meaning the original owner is the publisher or label rather than the songwriter or recording artist.

Earlier this year original Village People singer Victor Willis successfully obtained a judgment after his publishers claimed that he couldn’t regain control over his to songs such as YMCA, In The Navy, Go West and 30 other compositions. But the federal court’s decision didn’t address the “made for hire” defence because the music publisher dropped that matter before the court’s decision.

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