Ninth Circuit permits copyright lawsuit against the adult children of Ray Charles to proceed

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit recently ruled that the Ray Charles Charitable Foundation can proceed with copyright claims it has asserted against the adult children of the late musical great Ray Charles.[1] The Ray Charles Foundation is a non-profit corporation which provides “research and scholarship grants for the benefit of the deaf, blind, and underprivileged youths.”[2] The Foundation is the sole beneficiary of Ray Charles’ estate and relies upon royalties from Ray Charles’ copyrighted work to operate.[3]

The Foundation sued seven of Ray Charles’ twelve adult children for allegedly breaching an agreement, made when Ray Charles was alive, in which Ray Charles set up an irrevocable trust of $500,000 for each of the Defendants in exchange for the Defendants agreeing not to claim any further rights in Mr. Charles’ estate after he dies.[4] It is alleged that the Defendants served copyright termination notices on various parties claiming that previous grants to the rights of several copyrighted Ray Charles songs, including but not limited to, “‘I Got A Woman,’ ‘A Fool for You,’ ‘Blackjack,’ ‘Leave My Woman Alone,’ and ‘Hallelujah, I Love Her So,’” would be terminated on a date certain and “revert in proportionate shares to each of Charles’ heirs.”[5]

The Foundation’s lawsuit was originally dismissed by the United States District Court for the Central District of California for lack of standing to sue.[6] However, the Ninth Circuit reversed finding that the Foundation did have standing and that its filing of the lawsuit was not premature, but rejected the Foundation’s argument that it had standing as a “beneficial” owner of the copyrighted songs since it was the sole beneficiary of Ray Charles’ estate.[7] The Ninth Circuit noted that while the owner of the copyright in such songs is publisher Warner/Chappell, the Foundation had standing to sue, in part because as the sole beneficiary of the royalties in such songs, the alleged termination by the Defendants could deprive the Foundation of the right to receive prospective royalties.[8]

The issue of standing is an important one because it determines whether a party bringing a lawsuit has sufficient interest in the lawsuit or has suffered sufficient injury from the complained of conduct. Standing is a prerequisite to bringing a lawsuit. For example, standing issues can be relevant where a licensee of a copyright, trademark, or patent wants to sue an alleged infringer. A licensee may not have sufficient standing to bring a lawsuit on its own without the owner of the alleged intellectual property. The ability to bring a lawsuit in such cases may hinge upon the specific terms of the license or whether it is exclusive or nonexclusive. Please contact our office if you have any questions regarding the information in this article.

Daniel Devine, Esq.
Santucci Priore, P.L.

[1] See, Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson, et. al., No. 13-55421, 2015 WL 4591871 (9th Cir. July 31, 2015).
[2] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *1.
[3] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *1-2.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *3.
[6] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *3-4.
[7] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *5-7.
[8] Id. at 2015 WL 4591871 at *8.

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