×
Skip to main content

‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ Heirs Lose Battle to Win Back Rights

The ruling over the iconic song came as Kacey Musgraves is set to release a cover for an upcoming Elvis biopic.

The heirs of the songwriter behind Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” aren’t allowed to win back control of the rights to the song from Authentic Brands Group, a federal appeals court says.

In a ruling Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said Hugo Peretti’s descendents couldn’t use copyright’s termination right to take back the song, popularized Presley’s chart-topping 1961 recording and later covered by Bob Dylan and many others.

Related

In a complex decision that recounted decades of history, the appeals court ruled that a key 1983 agreement had, crucially, only sold away Peretti’s heirs’ future right to renew the copyright and not the songwriter’s actual existing rights to the song.

Since the termination right only applies to deals signed by creators themselves, the court said, the provision did not apply to the deal that sold away “Can’t Help.”

“Congress made a deliberate choice not to provide for termination rights in the situation at hand,” U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for the appeals court. “Perhaps the Peretti family could have negotiated a better deal in 1983. But the statute does not give the Perettis the right to do so now.”

The ruling means that the publishing rights to “Can’t Help” will stay with Authentic Brands Group, a major brand management company that also owns the rights to Elvis’s name and likeness. That’s no small thing: Kacey Musgraves is set to release a new cover of the track for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann-directed Elvis biopic due out in June.

The Second Circuit’s decision came in one of many recent cases over the termination right, which allows creators to take back control of their old music decades after they sell it to a label or publisher. Brian Wilson, Cher, 2 Live Crew, Dwight Yoakam and a slew of others have recently fought termination battles, and two major class actions are seeking to enforce the right en masse against Universal Music Group and Sony Music Entertainment.

In Peretti’s case, the songwriter and his wife and daughters signed a deal in 1983 to sell rights to the “Can’t Help” to pioneering music publishers Julian and Jean Aberbach, who controlled much of Elvis’s publishing catalogue. Years later, the rights to the song eventually ended up with Authentic Brands. In 2014, Peretti’s heirs invoked their right to terminate that deal; Authentic Brands fought back, setting the stage for litigation.

Wednesday’s decision was extremely complicated, involving overlapping versions of federal copyright law, decades of history, and subtle distinctions between “contingent rights” and actual rights in a contract. But it boiled down to the court’s finding that the deal signed in 1983 was not “executed” by Peretti himself a key requirement for eligibility under the termination right.

Here’s why: The deal with the Aberbachs didn’t cover the actual rights to “Can’t Help”; instead, it covered only the right to renew the copyright when it became eligible in 1989. But Peretti died in 1985, meaning his right to renew the copyright was extinguished and passed along to his wife and daughters. According to the Second Circuit, that means that when the 1983 deal actually vested in 1989, it only applied to rights controlled by his wife and daughter and not the songwriter himself.

“While Hugo Peretti’s signature graces the 1983 assignment, he cannot have executed a grant transferring rights, such as those owned by his family members, that he did not hold,” Judge Lynch wrote. “We therefore conclude that the grants made by Hugo’s wife and daughters in the 1983 Assignment are not grants ‘executed by the author’ merely because Hugo Peretti’s signature is found on the same grant document.”

In arguing their case before the Second Circuit, Peretti’s heirs claimed such ruling would “do violence” to the termination right, “undermining” Congress’s goal of giving copyright owners an ironclad second chance to earn more money from their music.

But the court rejected those arguments, saying lawmakers had clearly intended for there to be limits to the termination right in certain circumstances. The court also pointedly noted that Peretti’s heirs had, in fact, gotten the kind of “second bite” that Congress wanted them to have.

“When the Peretti family effected the 1983 Assignment, 20 years had passed since Elvis Presley rode the Composition to the top of the charts, and over 100 versions of the song, vocal and instrumental, had been issued, by artists ranging from Wayne Newton and Doris Day to Marty Robbins and Bob Dylan,” Judge Lynch wrote. “There is no plausible argument that the Perettis did not understand the value of the Composition at the time that they entered into the 1983 Assignment.”

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately return requests for comment on Thursday.

Read the full ruling here: