Dispute Over James Brown Estate Largely Ends as Heirs Agree on Plan

NYT Music

Ms. Hynie has already received income associated with selling back copyrights to songs when their ownership became eligible for reversion. In 2015, well before her status as Mr. Brown’s spouse was struck down by the court, she exercised termination rights for five of Mr. Brown’s songs; she and her son, James Brown II, then sold them back to Mr. Brown’s primary music publisher, Warner Chappell, for $1.875 million, according to court papers. Ms. Hynie has testified that she spent much of the proceeds from that deal on “debts for living.”

Dylan Malagrinò, an associate professor at the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina, said that, as part of the settlement, Mr. Brown’s children and grandchildren may have tried to get back some of the money that Ms. Hynie made from Warner Chappell. Since the South Carolina court ruled she was not a legal spouse, Mr. Malagrinò said, she may well have not had the right to exercise the termination rights needed to enter into that deal. A representative for Warner Chappell declined to comment.

Despite losing her status as a spousal heir, Ms. Hynie could still retain a connection to the estate through her son, James Brown II, who the rest of the children and grandchildren have recognized and allowed to be part of the settlement — potentially giving him access to income earned as a result of reclaimed copyrights.

The estate, and its beneficiaries, do not automatically benefit from any terminated copyrights. They will have to rely on Mr. Brown’s children deciding to give some of the money they receive to fund the trust and pay the scholarships for the underprivileged children, as per the terms of Mr. Brown’s will.

Mr. Malagrinò predicts the estate will quickly move to do this, in part to begin building a positive public-relations image after so many years of acrimony.

With a settlement that now has resolved most of the major litigation connected to the estate — only a dispute with one of its former administrators remains — Mr. Brown’s estate is likely to end up as a unified entity, like those of other music superstars Ray Charles, Jimi Hendrix and Prince, all of which endured years of litigation and conflict.

“Chances are,” Mr. Malagrinò said, “they will speak in one voice: ‘This is the way we go forward.’”

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