Songwriter's heirs can't reclaim rights to Elvis hit, judge rules

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Street banners line Elvis Presley boulevard near Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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  • Songwriter, family sold renewal rights in "Can't Help Falling in Love"
  • Appeals court said surviving heirs could not terminate contract

(Reuters) - The daughter and grandson of Hugo Peretti, who co-wrote Elvis Presley's hit song "Can't Help Falling in Love," cannot recover rights to the song from Authentic Brands Group LLC under copyright law, a U.S. appeals court said Wednesday.

The rights that Valentina Peretti Acuti and Paul Reitnauer argued they were entitled to did not exist when Peretti and his family sold them, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said.

Authentic Brands, its lawyers and attorneys for Peretti's heirs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the decision.

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It was 1961 when Peretti and two other songwriters wrote the ballad "Can't Help Falling In Love," which became a hit for Presley and has since been recorded by hundreds of other musicians.

Peretti, his wife and his daughters agreed in 1983 to transfer their right to renew Peretti's copyright interest in the song to Julian and Joachim Aberbach, who later transferred it to Authentic Brands. The company manages dozens of brands, including Presley's.

Acuti and Reitnauer gave Authentic Brands notice that they were terminating the contract in 2014, under a provision of federal copyright law that allows creators to terminate transfers of their copyrights and reclaim them after decades.

The heirs sued in Manhattan federal court in 2020 after Authentic Brands disputed the termination, seeking a ruling that it was effective. The 2nd Circuit agreed Wednesday with the district court's decision to dismiss the case last year.

The termination right only applies to agreements executed by the author themselves, and the only concrete right Peretti owned at the time of the contract was his "interest in the composition during its original term," U.S. Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch said.

The rights at issue in the case were not concrete as of 1983 and depended on several hypothetical factors before becoming concrete, like Peretti being alive when the copyright was up for renewal and his wife staying married to him, Lynch said.

Peretti died in 1986, and his widow, daughters, and surviving co-writers renewed the copyright in 1989. The rights at issue came into existence at that time and transferred to the Aberbachs, Lynch said.

The case is Acuti v. Authentic Brands Group LLC, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-2174.

For the heirs: Robert Clarida of Reitler Kailas & Rosenblatt

For ABG: Peter Anderson of Davis Wright Tremaine

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Blake Brittain reports on intellectual property law, including patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets. Reach him at blake.brittain@thomsonreuters.com