Whistling to the courthouse: Songwriters’ families sues over Andy Griffith Show theme

The Andy Griffith Show went off the air more than 50 years ago, leaving behind Andy, Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney Fife and the rest of the Mayberry gang.

The cast and crew left behind a song that’s bound to get stuck in your head as soon as it’s mentioned, and that song is now in the center of a legal copyright battle, a very un-Andy thing to do.

The song, written by Earl Hagen and Herbert Spencer, was copyrighted in 1960, and that copyright now belongs to Hagen Publishing Group, Inc., and the Diana R. Spencer Trust.

As descendants of the authors of one of TV’s most recognizable theme songs, they claim CBS is being very un-neighbourghly, relying on a 1978 agreement between Viacom (which predates CBS) and Mayberry Enterprises, the company that owned the rights to the TV show in its early days.

The songwriters’ family member now claim CBS/Viacom is violating their relatives’ copyright by selling DVDs of the show without first obtaining rights to the theme song.

“CBS has produced no evidence that Mayberry had a subsisting license to the theme, that these rights were transferrable, or that they encompass home video or any other associated media forms,” the lawsuit states, according to several reports. There’s no reference to home video or other in-house entertainment use on an individual basis for the show or, by extension, the song.

The estates go a step further, saying CBS took the liberty of licensing the oh-so-famous song for distribution on digital platforms, including iTunes and Amazon, without first securing the proper permissions.

Streaming, DVDs – heck, even VHS wasn’t in the vernacular when ol’ Andy was running the place. How could the companies involved even think to create usage rights for things so far ahead of their time as to be inconceivable and not dissimilar to magic in the late 1960s?

The heirs are asking for an injunction to stop CBS from selling DVDs or putting the song on streaming platforms without giving them their due. They’re claiming direct and contributory copyright infringement.

CBS, on the other hand, has so far declined to comment on the lawsuit, with the broadcast giant saying it hasn’t yet seen or received the complaint.

If the descendants of the writers are successful, could that open the door for other relatives of songwriters from hit TV shows during the dawn of the television era? Possibly! It’s also a good reminder that copyright law matters and can mean very big bucks.

Amber Healy

I write about music policy and lawsuits because they're endlessly fascinating.

Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.