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Descendants of Que Sera Sera writer in dispute over rights, royalties and termination notices

By | Published on Monday 18 July 2022

Que Sera Sera

The granddaughter of the late Jay Livingston – a prolific songwriter perhaps best known from co-writing ‘Que Sera Sera’ – has gone legal in a complicated dispute with her mother over the management of her grandfather’s rights and royalties.

Livingston had his own music publishing company called, simply, Jay Livingston Music, to which he assigned many of his copyrights, even though that basically meant he was assigning those rights to himself. He also set up a complex series of trusts, the key beneficiaries of which are his daughter Travilyn and granddaughter Tammy.

Travilyn Livingston and her husband Randy Talmadge now own and run Jay Livingston Music – also known as JLM – while both Travilyn and Tammy earn a share of the royalties generated by Jay’s work via the trusts.

In her lawsuit filed with the courts in Nashville, Tammy says that her mother and JLM have failed to provide sufficient information for her to check whether she is receiving what she is due under the terms of the trust.

However, the dispute between mother and daughter seems to have gained momentum because the former has exercised the termination right available under US copyright law that allows creators who assign their rights to another party to terminate that assignment after a number of years.

That termination right is now regularly enforced in relation to song rights, although in this scenario Travilyn seemingly enforced the right as her father’s heir against the publishing company her father founded and which she now runs. The termination right was initially enforced in relation to ‘Que Sera Sera’ – although termination notices have now been filed in relation to about 55 of Jay’s songs.

In her lawsuit, Tammy questions whether the termination notices filed by her mother are valid, and also seeks assurances that that process will not affect the royalties she receives via the trusts her grandfather created.

Tammy’s lawsuit states: “The trusts were specifically designed [based on] more than fifteen years of estate planning legal advice with competent estate planning counsel to hold the songwriter’s royalties Jay Livingston, plaintiff’s grandfather, retained at his death, and to assure his daughter and granddaughter received their respective shares”.

“Because this was of particular concern to Jay”, it adds, “Jay and his counsel meticulously stated in the trusts the shares of such songwriters royalties each trust beneficiary was to get upon his death, clearly employing the terms of the trusts as his testamentary intent identical to a will – ie, a will substitute – a common estate planning practice”.

The legal action is required, the lawsuits goes on, because of Travilyn “filing notices of termination under the Copyright Act of 1976, with respect to the United States copyrights for approximately 55 of the songs written by Jay Livingston, including, but not limited to the song classic, ‘Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera Sera)’ … one or more of these copyrights generate material songwriter royalties in which plaintiff presently shares as a beneficiary of the trusts, and directly as an individual”.

“Plaintiff’s shares of such songwriter royalties”, it reckons, “may be diminished, eliminated or otherwise adversely impacted by the effect of the filing of the notices of termination and any resulting effective termination of the applicable copyrights for the applicable songs”.

“Defendants have refused for years to provide adequate information to verify and determine whether plaintiff’s appropriate share or amount of songwriter royalties pertaining to any of the songs has been paid to plaintiff in accordance with the applicable contracts and the terms of the trusts”, it then claims. “In particular, defendants have refused to provide such information with respect to the terminated songs since the applicable specified effective date in the applicable notices of termination”.

With that in mind, it concludes, “plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that the notices of termination and potential termination are ineffective as a matter of law, or if effective, that such terminations do not diminish, eliminate, or, adversely impact plaintiff’s rights to receive, collect and be paid a share of songwriter royalties under the terms of the applicable contracts and the terms of the trusts, as she has previously prior to the effectiveness of any song copyright termination of any terminated song or otherwise”.

It remains to be seen how Tammy’s mother now responds. Will she be able to avoid the temptation to declare, simply, “whatever will be, will be”?