Heller likely in clear on song use, if not truthfulness

Dean Heller is being sued by the family of the songwriter who wrote “Big Spender,” a song from the 1966 Broadway show Sweet Charity.

But they have an uphill battle in winning. While the Cy Coleman estate apparently owns the rights to the song, that does not endow Coleman’s estate or his family with the ability to determine who performs it. Once a song is registered with a music licensing agency like ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, it is available for anyone who wants to perform it, as long as the licensing fees are paid. A “compulsory license” can be issued if a songwriter balks.

Nor did Heller’s campaign run afoul of copyright by using an already existing recording of the song. Heller aide Stewart Bybee says the campaign did not use the version of the song on the Broadway cast album. Instead, Heller’s media consultants, Weeks and Company of Austin, Texas, cut a new recording of the song with new lyrics. Weeks spokeswoman Lindsay Robertson says the new recording was made by UAR Studios and Keith Harter Music in San Antonio. The group assembled for the performance does not have a name.

Journalism “ad watch” features have faulted the Heller spot for untruthfulness. Tom Henkenius at KTVN News reported of the ad’s claim that Derby has run up $100,000 in expenses in 18 years as chair of the Board of Regents, “That’s false. Jill Derby was only chairwoman from 1997 to 2000.” In addition, Derby’s expenses per month over the 18 years she served as a regent come to about $5,100. For her three years as regents chair, the expenses were $15,449.