Looks like you can add the them from The Andy Griffith Show to the list of old, perpetually immortal tunes that you can’t perform without getting sued. Put it on the list right next to “Happy Birthday”.
In a recent court filing, the incredibly well known theme song has become the focal point of a lawsuit between CBS and the heirs of Earle Hagen and Herbert Spencer, who wrote the tune in the 1950’s, and filed for a copyright for it in 1960. The suit was filed on Thursday, May 23rd in a federal court in California.
We would normally post a video of said them right about here, but in the interest of not getting sued, here’s a clip of Barney Fife being the best deputy ever:
Whistle Away Your Rights
According to Deadline, the rights to the theme music were originally transferred to a partnership called Larrabee Music, where they remained until the songwriters passed away. Those rights then transferred to The Diana R. Spencer Trust and the Hagen Family Trust. Both parties dissolved Larrabee Music as a business entity, and partial copyright ownership was extended to the Hagen Children’s Trust, as well as the Hagen Decedent’s Trust.
Sadly, none of this would make a very good episode of The Andy Griffith Show. I can’t see Otis the town drunk leaving the rights to something he came up with to his kids after letting Barney and Opie use it for a while, then having Otis’ grandkids try to sue Opie 60 years later for still using it.
(I am in no way implying that the creators of the theme to The Andy Griffith show were drunks)
Suit Mayberry Any Hopes of Using Classic Theme
The new lawsuit claims that CBS has been using the theme without permission in the sale of DVDs and re-broadcast rights on streaming services like iTunes, Amazon, and Ron Howard’s back yard barbecues. (I made that last part up)
“CBS has refused to enter into a new agreement with Plaintiffs to authorize its exploitation of the Theme in additional media or to otherwise cease conducting such unauthorized exploitation. To the contrary, Plaintiffs have since learned that CBS has licensed the Series to digital services such as iTunes and Amazon for distribution and public performance.”
-Plaintiff Attorney Neville Johnson
CBS entered into a agreement in 1978 through its subsidiary, Viacom, and Mayberry Enterprises that allowed the company distribution rights to the series. Those rights did not extend to VHS, DVD, Blu Ray, or streaming distribution, since none of those existed at the time.
I’m pretty sure that if CBS had asked for rights to distribute The Andy Griffith Show on those platforms at the time, they would have been met with derisive laughter.
The heirs in the suit are asking for an injunction that prohibits CBS from continuing to “exploit” the theme song, and they are seeking damages for “direct and contributory copyright infringement”.
It will be interesting to see how CBS responds to the lawsuit, considering that the them to The Andy Griffith Show is as much a part of the program as Barney Fife shooting himself in the foot.