“I Got [Royalties] Babe”: Cher Sues Mary Bono

Neon sign saying "No Music No Life"
Photo by Simon Noh (Unsplash)

Shawn Dhue is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

On October 13, 2021, legendary singer and icon Cher filed a copyright lawsuit at the California Central District Federal Court against Mary Bono [Bono], former Republican U.S. Representative. Bono is the fourth wife and widow of the late Sonny Bono [Sonny], Cher’s ex-husband and famous singing partner. Cher and Sonny recorded famous songs such as I Got You Babe, Baby Don’t Go, Bang Bang, and more. 

Cher filed the lawsuit due to Bono and Sonny’s estate refusing to pay Cher royalties from the singing duo’s music catalogue. Overdue to pay these royalties, Bono has made her opinions clear, with her lawyer commenting to the Los Angeles Times: “The Copyright Act allows Sonny’s widow and children to reclaim Sonny’s copyrights from publishers, which is what they did.” With tensions high, the Good Times are nowhere in sight.

Bono claims that Cher is no longer entitled to 50 percent of the royalties from Sonny and Cher’s songs as per the ex-couple’s divorce settlement agreement. The claim states that Cher and Sonny agreed when divorcing that the two will split the royalties of the songs they created together.

Pursuant to section 203 of the U.S.’s Copyright Act of 1976 [“Act”], authors are able to cancel transfers of copyright protections and claim all rights after 35 years in certain situations. This notion has been in the news lately involving the late Stan Lee, Marvel, and Disney. This section, however, is challenged by section 302(b) of the Act which states: “In the case of a joint work … the copyright endures for a term consisting of the life of the last surviving author and 70 years after such last surviving author’s death.” If section 302 takes priority, Cher should be able to decide the royalties until her death and then 70 years more.

Bono, the trustee of Sonny’s entire estate and trust, configured the trust earlier in 2016. In the lawsuit, Cher states that in 2016, the trust was changed to claim notices of terminations of several music partnerships. One of those partnerships is Cher. These changes were only brought to Cher’s attention in September 2021, when she was also alerted that she was no longer allowed to approve the uses of their songs and many other entitled rights.

Bryan Sullivan says that this claim comes down to who rightfully owns the music. The owner of the music should be the one who decides who is able to transfer and reclaim rights. Most importantly, though, it is absurd that Bono has decided for herself to reclaim all transfers and to end Cher’s royalties.

Cher is now seeking a million dollars in damages and asking the court to make a declaratory judgment saying the estate did not end her rights. This claim will most likely be handled through settlement, but as the public, we should sit back, enjoy this Circus, and watch as The Beat Goes On.

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