Cher wins lawsuit against Sonny Bono’s widow over royalty payments

Cher wins lawsuit against Sonny Bono’s widow over royalty payments

Cher has emerged victorious in her protracted legal battle against Mary Bono, the widow of her former musical partner and ex-husband, Sonny Bono, over royalty payments from the Sonny & Cher catalog. The Grammy-winning artist initiated the lawsuit in 2021, accusing Mary Bono of withholding royalties from iconic songs like “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On.”

The federal civil lawsuit highlighted that Cher and Sonny had agreed to an equal division of their community property, including music royalties, following their divorce in 1975. This 50-50 split was supposed to continue even after Sonny’s tragic death in a skiing accident in 1998. However, Mary Bono informed Cher that she was no longer entitled to her share of the royalties under the Copyright Act, which allows songwriters and their heirs to reclaim control of their intellectual property.

In a decision issued on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge John A. Kronstadt ruled in favor of Cher, allowing her to continue receiving her share of the royalties. The ruling stated that Cher is entitled to the royalties even with the termination rights exercised by Mary Bono. Since the dispute began, more than $400,000 in royalties have been withheld from Cher, according to the court filings.

The legal battle dates back several years. When Cher and Sonny finalized their divorce in 1978, it was determined that Cher would receive a 50 percent stake in the Sonny & Cher publishing catalog. After Sonny’s death, Cher and Bono’s heirs entered into a partnership over the songs. However, in 2016, Mary Bono exercised the Copyright Act’s “termination rights,” which allows songwriters or their heirs to reclaim control of their U.S. publishing rights after 35 years. By 2021, Mary Bono claimed that through these termination rights, she could stop paying royalties to Cher, prompting the lawsuit.

Judge Kronstadt’s ruling upheld his tentative decision from February, determining that the federal termination rules do not override the divorce settlement between Sonny and Cher. The judge emphasized that Cher has a “contractual right to receive financial compensation” for the material from the Sonny & Cher music catalog, distinguishing it from a grant of copyright that could be voided using termination rights.

Sonny & Cher were one of the most popular duos in America during the 1960s and 1970s, scoring major hits like “Baby Don’t Go,” “The Beat Goes On,” and “I Got You Babe.” Their career as a duo ended around the time of their divorce, but Cher went on to achieve immense success as a solo artist, while Sonny transitioned into politics. He married Mary, his third wife, in 1986 and died 12 years later.

Mary Bono’s attorney, Daniel J. Schacht, praised the judge for confirming that his client now owns Sonny’s copyrights but criticized the ruling on copyright terminations. Schacht argued that the decision, if left standing, would harm songwriters and creators by allowing former spouses, publishers, and labels to circumvent the Copyright Act and retain shares of royalties even after terminations.

Despite the ruling, Mary Bono can appeal the decision to a federal appeals court. Her attorney indicated that regardless of the outcome, Mary and Cher would continue to work collaboratively and respectfully to uphold and honor Sonny’s musical legacy.

Cher, who will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame later this year, is reportedly owed more than $400,000 in past royalties that have accrued since the lawsuit began. The singer has continued to enjoy a successful career, including a late-90s comeback with the global hit “Believe” and her latest album, “Christmas,” released in October 2023.

Representatives for Cher and Mary Bono did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The ruling marks a significant victory for Cher, ensuring that she will continue to receive her rightful share of royalties from the Sonny & Cher catalog, preserving the legacy of their iconic music.

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