Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson et al.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s dismissal of a suit brought by the sole beneficiary of the Ray Charles estate, concluding that the Ray Charles Foundation had standing to challenge Charles’s heirs in their attempt to reclaim several copyrights to the late singer’s works because the Foundation’s right to royalties from such works would be affected. Ray Charles Foundation v. Robinson et al., Case No. 13-55421 (9th Cir. July 31, 2015) (Christen, J.).

The Ray Charles Foundation is the sole beneficiary of the Ray Charles estate. The Foundation relies on royalty income from Charles’s copyrights to fulfill its mission. In March 2010, seven of Charles’s children filed notices under §§ 203 and 304(c) of the Copyright Act to terminate grants of copyright Charles authorized during his career. If effected, the termination of such grants would revert, to Charles’s heirs, the copyrights in 51 compositions. In March 2012, the Foundation filed suit challenging the termination notices. The Foundation asserted a federal claim for declaratory and injunctive relief, asking the district court to determine whether the termination notices were valid, and to prevent the defendants from claiming ownership to, or the benefit of, the copyrights at issue. The heirs moved to dismiss the Foundation’s federal claims based on lack of standing. The district court agreed, holding that the Foundation’s right to receive royalties from the compositions did not fall within the zone of interests protected by the copyright termination provisions and the Foundation did not have third party standing to assert rights on behalf of the copyright owner, Warner/Chappell Music. The Foundation appealed.

At the outset, the 9th Circuit acknowledged that the Foundation met the requirements for Article III standing and found the suit to be ripe for adjudication. While the 9th Circuit rejected the Foundation’s argument that it had standing to bring its claims as a beneficial owner of the Charles copyrights, the court determined that the Foundation had standing to bring its claims as a “real party in interest.” The 9th Circuit reasoned that termination of the copyright grants would affect the Foundation’s right to royalties stemming from such grants, depriving the Foundation of the right to receive future royalty income.

The 9th Circuit also found that the Foundation’s causes of action did fall within the zone of interests contemplated by the copyright termination statutes. While the Court acknowledged the heirs’ argument that the interests of a copyright royalty recipient are not expresslyaddressed in the termination provisions, the Foundation’s alleged injury to its interest in the royalty stream generated by Charles’s works is one that Congress “contemplated, regulated, and protected in enacting the termination provisions,” as it is the same interest the heirs sought to acquire. The 9th Circuit continued that even if the Foundation’s interests aren’t among those Congress contemplated in enacting the termination statutes, the Foundation would still have standing to bring the subject action, as it was entitled to a declaration establishing when its right to receive royalties would revert to Charles’s heirs.