Judge Sides with Cher in Tentative Ruling In Mary Bono Royalties War

Is Cher’s $1 million royalties claim against Mary Bono strong enough? A judge seems to think so.  

At a court hearing Monday, a federal judge said he believes Cher is entitled to receive ongoing composition royalties from songs including “I Got U Babe” and “The Beat Goes On” as outlined in her 1978 divorce agreement with Sonny Bono – despite Sonny’s heirs exercising their right to recapture his underlying copyrights under the federal Copyright Act.

In his tentative ruling delivered from the bench, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt said he believes the marital settlement agreement (MSA) awarded Cher a specific cut of incoming proceeds — as opposed to a copyright grant — so her claim is protected by state contract law and not subject to the termination rules of a copyright right. He said that distinction answers the “key question” of the case, and he was leaning toward ruling in Cher’s favor.

“The plain language of the MSA grants the right to the proceeds of the musical compositions and interests, not to the underlying copyrights,” he said in his federal courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. “I don’t think the notice of termination can affect (Cher’s) notice of contractual rights under the MSA.”

Judge Kronstadt also said he wasn’t persuaded by Mary’s arguments that Cher’s lawsuit should be rejected because she never named Sonny’s other heirs — his four kids, including Cher’s son Chaz Bono — as defendants even though the case affects their royalty payments as well. “I think (Mary Bono’s) interests are sufficiently aligned with those of Sonny’s children, so she can adequately represent them, and there’s evidence of (their) awareness of this litigation but no objection or effort to intervene,” the judge said.

Judge Kronstadt further stated he disagreed with Mary’s claim that Cher lacks “standing” in the case and shouldn’t be allowed to sue because she sold her stake in the Sonny Bono composition royalties when she sold much of her catalog to Irving Azoff’s Iconic Artists Group in 2022. “Standing is assessed at time of filing, and at the time of filing (in 2021), there was standing,” the judge said Monday. He said Cher also has standing because any possible change to her entitlement to royalties would affect her deal with Iconic since she “presumably received compensation in exchange for granting rights to these funds.”

But Judge Kronstadt seemed poised to side with Mary in terms of agreeing with her that the MSA granted Sonny’s heirs the “sole” right to name candidates to administer his composition copyrights and receive an up to 10 percent management fee. This is important to Mary, her lawyers said, because she believes Iconic wants to handle administration themselves, “in-house.”

“They have zero interest in appointing anybody,” Mary’s lawyer Daniel Schacht told the court Monday. He said Mary was worried Iconic would “force” the heirs back into litigation over the appointment of an administrator.

With the judge’s tentative ruling leaning heavily in Cher’s favor, Schacht spent the last portion of his argument Monday on a possible compromise proposal. He said that if the court sticks to its tentative ruling and decides Cher has a continuing right to composition royalties, she should be limited to the same 50 percent cut of the artist share that she and Sonny split when they signed their agreement. Mary’s lawyers calculated this as 36 cents on each royalty dollar. Schacht argued that any “publisher share” clawed back by the heirs through termination of Sonny’s agreements should go to the heirs alone. He said if anyone should get a “windfall” from Copyright Act terminations, it should be artists’ heirs, not a music company to which an ex-spouse sold their rights. “With this middle ground we’ve proposed, where the publisher’s share only reverts to Mary and Sonny’s children, Cher would continue to get whatever they bargained for, while the windfall would go to the intended heirs,” he said.

Cher’s lawyer, Peter J. Anderson, scoffed at the idea. “This isn’t a negotiation. The law is clear. The statute says that termination in no way affects state rights, and the MSA says that Cher is entitled to 50 percent of (composition) royalties from all sources, not excluding publishing sources,” Anderson said.

The star’s attorney argued that by the time Sonny and Cher signed their divorce settlement in August of 1978, they were “sophisticated people” represented by “sophisticated lawyers.” They also knew two things by that time: “That these songs had actually been released, and ‘I Got U Babe,’ and ‘Bang Bang,’ were big hits. They knew this. They also knew that the 1976 Copyright Act was in effect and that on January 1, 1978, it had a termination right. So, when they said Cher gets 50 percent of all royalties from all sources, that includes under the replacement publishing agreements when they terminate the initial publishing agreements. These songs were already tested by the marketplace. These sophisticated people already knew about termination rights.”

Judge Kronstadt did not immediately adopt his tentative ruling on Monday. He’s expected to issue his formal ruling in the coming weeks. In the meantime, he suggested the sides try to mediate one more time to reach a possible settlement. If the judge adopts his tentative ruling as stated, the remaining dispute over the exact royalties owed to Cher for the period before her sale to Iconic could lead to a trial, but most of the money sits in an escrow account, so it’s likely the sides would come to agreement.

Cher, 77, is a Grammy, Oscar, and Emmy winner who began performing with Sonny in 1964 and appeared with him in The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour before moving on to a solo singing career and critically acclaimed roles in the movies SilkwoodMaskThe Witches of Eastwick, and Moonstruck.

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She and Sonny married in 1967, had one child together, and broke up in 1974. Sonny, who composed his biggest hits including “I Got U Babe” before his marriage with Cher, died in 1998 after a skiing accident, leaving his widow Mary in control of his estate. When Sonny’s copyright grants began to be eligible for termination in 2018, Mary decided to invoke the right.

Elected to replace Sonny in Congress after his death, Mary served as the Republican U.S. Representative for the Palm Springs area of Southern California from 1998 to 2013. She previously tried, but failed, to convince the court that federal copyright law trumped any state contract or community property laws cited by Cher.

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