Motown songwriting legend Ron Miller’s family in legal fight over royalties

Stevie Wonder's famous version of For Once In My Life was released in 1968, hitting No.2 on the Billboard Hot 100

A dramatic family feud is playing out over the rights to the works of Motown songwriter and producer Ron Miller – with a music industry publishing giant caught in the middle.

Miller, known best for co-writing For Once In My Life – a track that became a Hot 100 hit for Tony Bennett, a No.2 hit for Stevie Wonder, and was also recorded by Diana Ross, Frank Sinatra, The Temptations and others – died in 2007, but his heirs have become embroiled in a complicated dispute over his royalties.

In 2022, Sony Music Publishing reportedly signed a deal with one of Miller’s children, Lisa Dawn Miller, to administer the rights for 130 of the late songwriter’s compositions.

Now two of Lisa Miller’s half-siblings, also children of Ron Miller, allege that she gained control over those copyrights by illegitimate means, and have gone to court over the matter.

In a complaint filed September 7 with the US District Court for the Central District of California, Western Division, Julie Moss and Mark Miller allege that Lisa Miller “launched a scheme to usurp control” of a 50% share of Ron Miller’s copyrights from his wife from his second marriage, Aurora Miller.

“Lisa exerted undue influence over an aging and sick Aurora to coerce Aurora into executing notices of copyright termination,” the complaint alleges. “Then… as Aurora’s health continued to decline, Lisa began forging Aurora’s signature on notices of copyright termination.”

The full complaint, obtained by MBW, can be read here.

Under US copyright law, a copyright holder or their heirs can issue a notice of copyright termination, which allows them to cancel existing agreements for the use of their works, if those agreements were signed long ago.

Much of Ron Miller’s song catalog was copyrighted in the 1960s and 1970s, and many of those compositions have passed the 56-year mark that allows a notice of copyright termination for songs copyrighted before 1978.

The complaint alleges that, between 2009 and 2012, Lisa Miller “unduly influenced Aurora [Miller]” to sign 13 notices of copyright termination to EMI Music Publishing and EMI Blackwood Music for dozens of Ron Miller’s songs, which would have reverted the publishing rights on those songs to Aurora.

Between 2013 and 2015, the complaint alleges, Lisa Miller sent 14 more copyright termination notices to EMI Music Publishing and EMI Blackwood Music, involving dozens more songs, “while Aurora was hospitalized, medically incapacitated, and unable to understand, consent to, or execute legal documents.”

The complaint states: “By the time Aurora became incapacitated due to illness, Lisa was acting entirely on her own to issue notices of copyright termination in Aurora’s name,” the complaint further alleges. “When Aurora lapsed into a coma on March 20, 2016, Lisa kept her mother alive in a vegetative state against doctor’s advice and sibling’s wishes.”

The complaint implies that Lisa Miller may have kept her mother alive for the purposes of continuing to collect the copyrights on Ron Miller’s songs.

“While Aurora was in a coma, on April 22, 2016, the earliest possible date under the 1976 Copyright Act that the Copyright Termination Interest could be exercised for Heaven Help Us All, Lisa executed, purportedly on behalf of Aurora, another Notice of Termination,” the complaint states.

Two months later “on June 15, 2016, Lisa decided to turn off the machines keeping Aurora alive. On June 15, 2016, Aurora died,” the complaint states.

“Despite Sony’s stated willingness to provide Julie and Mark with a copy of the agreement and account to Julie and Mark directly, Lisa has blocked any transparency and payment to statutory heirs Julie and Mark.”

Court complaint filed on behalf of Julie Moss and Mark Miller

According to the complaint, Lisa Miller then established two companies, under the name of LDM Publishing, for the purposes of collecting royalties on the copyrights, and in 2022, she announced that she had signed a deal with Sony Music Publishing to administer the copyrights.

The plaintiffs, Julie and Mark Miller, “have not received a penny” from that agreement, the complaint alleges.

“Despite Sony’s stated willingness to provide Julie and Mark with a copy of the agreement and account to Julie and Mark directly, Lisa has blocked any transparency and payment to statutory heirs Julie and Mark. Lisa maintains she must be in complete and total control to the exclusion of the other statutory heirs,” the complaint states.

The complaint says that Sony tried to bring the feuding parties together to resolve the issue, acting as a go-between in negotiations that came to nothing.

Sony Music Publishing is named as a defendant in the suit, along with Lisa Miller and the businesses she owns.

The issue of who rightfully owns the copyrights to the songs is complicated by the fact that Lisa Miller is the daughter of Aurora Miller, Ron Miller’s second wife, who was married to the songwriter at the time of his death in 2007. The plaintiffs, Julie Moss and Mark Miller, are the children of Ron Miller’s first wife, whom he divorced.

As a result, on top of the share they would inherit as children of Ron Miller, Lisa and her sibling Angel stand to inherit between them the 50% stake of Ron Miller’s copyrights that Aurora Miller inherited at the time of Ron’s death. On the other hand, the plaintiffs, as children from the first marriage, stand to inherit 12.5% each, i.e, the 50% due to the children of Ron Miller, divided by four, as Ron had a total of four biological children from his two marriages.

The value of Ron Miller’s estate isn’t estimated in the complaint, but Miller wrote or co-wrote a number of hit songs, including Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit single Heaven Help Us All, Diana Ross’ 1973 hit Touch Me in the Morning, and Someday at Christmas, a song covered by many artists, including Justin Bieber.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the notices of copyright termination that gave Lisa Miller effective control of Ron Miller’s copyrights to be invalid.

However, should the court rule that they are valid, they further ask the court to declare that Lisa Miller doesn’t have a right to collect royalties on behalf of her half-siblings, and that Sony should be directed to make royalty payments directly to them.

They also ask the court to force Lisa’s businesses to open their books for a full accounting of the royalties they collected from Sony, and for the courts to order that their rightful share of those royalties be paid out to them.

They also seek compensation for attorneys’ fees and other costs involved in the litigation.Music Business Worldwide

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