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Ray Charles’ family win legal battle with Foundation

By | Published on Wednesday 30 January 2013

Ray Charles

The Ray Charles Foundation has lost in its legal battle against the late soul star’s children, though it has pledged to appeal the ruling.

As previously reported, the heirs of Charles have issued a termination notice to the publisher of the singer’s songs, Warner/Chappell, exercising a right under US law that gives songwriters the option to reclaim copyrights, previously assigned by contract to a publisher, after 35 years. It’s a right that is only just coming into effect, and some legalities around it are still to be tested in court.

The main issue is what happens if a publisher claims that a song was written as a ‘work for hire’, ie the publishing firm hired the songwriter to pen a track, rather than the songwriter creating the work and then assigning the rights in it to a corporate entity by contract. Arguably in the work for hire scenario the reclaim option does not apply.

The Ray Charles Foundation is currently the beneficiary of its founders’ copyrights, ie the songwriter’s royalty is paid to the Foundation by Warner/Chappell. If the family take back the copyrights, they essentially cut off the charity’s income stream.

The charity claims that the family attempting to take ownership of Charles’ copyright breaks an agreement reached between the singer and his children before his death in 2004. However, they originally tried to block the family’s actions by claiming Charles wrote some of his songs on a work for hire basis, so the reclaim option was not relevant. But Charles’s children successfully argued that if that was the case, only Warner/Chappell could try to block their termination notice, not the Foundation.

The charity subsequently changed its position on the status of Charles’s songs. Which probably didn’t help their case when the specific Foundation v Family case came to court. And a court has now found in the family’s favour.

But the Foundation is not giving up yet, insisting it is acting according to Charles’s own wishes prior to his death. The charity’s President Valerie Ervin told reporters: “The very clear and unmistakable intention of both Ray Charles and all his children [when making a 2002 agreement] was that, in exchange for a substantial payment, the children were not to raise any claims against their father’s estate. The children who filed these termination notices violated the sacred promise they made. They took their father’s money and now come back for more”.

She added: “The law is very unsettled in these matters and we intend to seek resolution through the courts. Meanwhile, The Foundation will continue its substantial charitable works as intended by Mr Charles. Ray Charles never let anything stand in the way of his work and The Foundation continues with his legacy”.