Here’s What Happened:

In the late 1960s, Sonny and Cher, the married singing duo, had chart topping hit records and a television variety show. Fame can be hard on a marriage and they eventually broke up. In their divorce proceedings, they entered into a marital settlement agreement (MSA) that split their rights in their collective body of work. In exchange for 50% of the rights to royalties and payments, Cher released Sonny and his heirs from any other claims she might have had.

Cher went on to a fabulous solo singing and acting career. Sonny was elected to Congress where he was responsible for a law that extended the term of copyright from 50 to 70 years. Sonny died tragically in a skiing accident and his widow, Mary, became executor of his decedent’s estate. Cher filed a claim based on the MSA against the estate which was allowed.

In 2016, Mary served music publishers to whom Sonny had granted licenses with a notice of termination of pursuant to §304(c) of the Copyright Act. This section allows the author of a work (or his widow and descendants) to terminate a transfer of an interest in copyrights after a certain number of years. Mary issued the notice without Cher’s knowledge and consent. Then Mary stopped paying Cher. In 2021, Mary advised Cher she terminated the MSA. Cher didn’t take kindly to this turn of events.

Cher and Mary brought dueling declaratory judgment actions in which they asked the district court to decide who was right.

The district court entered summary judgment for Cher. The decision hinged on whether the MSA was a matter of state law and so can’t be terminated under Copyright Law. The court used a two prong analysis.

First it determined whether the MSA falls within the subject matter of Copyright Law which protects works of authorship. The MSA arose under state law for allocating the property rights of the divorcing couple. In exchange, the divorcing couple released each other and their heirs from any claims arising out of their former marital status. So the first prong goes to Cher.

Second, if the answer to the first prong is yes, then is the state law claim the equivalent to the exclusive rights that authors have in their works which is often referred to as the “bundle of right”. The bundle of rights includes the right to copy, distribute and prepare derivative works among others. For this case, the second prong doesn’t need much analysis. But this prong would have come out in Cher’s favor anyway. The MSA had nothing to do with the author’s bundle of rights.

The court concluded that while the property being allocated in the MSA involved copyrighted works, the MSA isn’t about copyrights. It’s about marital asset allocation. So, the MSA isn’t subject to termination.

WHY YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS:  States inherently have the right to govern certain matters. Chief among them are the marital rights of the individuals who reside in the state. This case is a good example of how the marital rights and copyrights are analyzed.

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