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Deaths in Entertainment Become Problems for the Federal Judiciary

Musicians, book authors and Hollywood scriptwriters die. That’s inevitable. What may change is the venue where heirs fight over the spoils.

Take a 57-page decision on Wednesday in South Carolina federal court.

The dispute concerns James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” who died at the age of 73 in 2006. In the parlance of obituary writing, Brown was survived by an alleged widow, an alleged son, plus nine more children and grandchildren from broken marriages. After Brown died, questions arose about multiple bigamy, DNA tests and a quarreling family attempting to resolve entitlement to an estate valued as high as $100 million. For full details, see our prior article about the 12-year drama that is the James Brown family feud.

What matters most for the latest decision is the allegation that Brown’s last wife, Tomi Rae Hynie, conspired with the administrators of the estate to come to secretive royalty agreements for Brown’s songs to the detriment of others in the Brown clan.

In various forms, the dispute had been playing out until recently in a local probate court before judges accustomed to squabbling over inheritances. But thanks to a change in copyright law in the mid-1970s, the James Brown family feud has shifted to a federal court. It likely won’t be the last estate battle to do so.

In 1976, Congress decided that authors or their heirs should have the ability to terminate copyright grants during the late stage of the copyright term. These individuals needed to wait 35 years and go through a complicated set of protocols to reclaim rights from publishers and studios.

Flash forward to today, and the turning of the statutory clock has introduced all sorts of novel issues regarding copyright termination. Just yesterday, for example, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals was reading Italian law

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