The Legal Beat: Cher Sues Sonny's Widow

Famed recording artist and actress Cher has filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles for declaratory relief and breach of contract. Cher claims that Sonny’s widow, Mary, and his estate are attempting to terminate her right to her share of songwriting and record royalties from Sonny and Cher songs.

The performing duo Sony and Cher were very successful in the 1960s with such hits as “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On.” They began performing in 1964 and were married in 1967 (they also had a hit TV show). Mary was Sonny’s fourth wife. They divorced in 1978. Some may remember that Mary took over Sonny’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after Sonny passed away in the late 1990’s.

Sonny and Cher’s marital settlement agreement provided that they would evenly split the record and songwriting royalties from their musical career. However, Mary Bono and Sonny’s estate (“defendants”) filed a notice of termination of Cher’s rights to 50 percent of these royalties. 

Mary is the trustee of the trust that administers Sonny Bono’s music. The lawsuit states that in 2016 Sonny’s trust sent notices of termination to some music publishers. The trust now contends those notices of termination to the publishers also terminated Cher’s right to her share of Sonny and Cher royalties.

Cher says she has recently been informed that the trust would stop paying her share of royalties when the termination of the publishers’ rights takes effect. The trust also told Cher that she would no longer have the right to approve uses of Sonny and Cher songs (for instance, licenses for TV and film).

The Copyright Act provides that, in some cases, after 35 years songwriters can terminate a publisher’s rights. Cher has requested that the court stop the trust that administers Sonny Bono’s royalties from terminating her rights that derive from their marital settlement Agreement. This provision of the Copyright Act regarding termination of rights has also been the subject of recent disputes involving Marvel and baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies.

Defendants have been paying Cher’s 50 percent interest in royalties for many years. Cher argues in her lawsuit that terminating the publishers’ rights does not affect the rights Cher has under the marital settlement agreement.

In her lawsuit Cher asks for a declaratory judgment that the estate cannot legitimately terminate her rights to the subject royalties. Cher also requests one million dollars in damages for breach of the martial settlement agreement. 

The defendant’s attorney, Daniel Schact, stated: “Representative Bono remains open to continuing a private discussion about this, but we are confident that, if necessary, the court will affirm their position.” This statement seems to indicate that settlement negotiations are ongoing and defendants are open to resolving this matter without further litigation. If the parties enter into a settlement agreement it is likely it will be confidential.

Only time will tell if this matter settles out of court or if it proceeds to a trial. And the beat goes on…..