Last month, reports surfaced that a previously-filed lawsuit against singer/songwriter Mariah Carey and co-writer Walter Afanasieff related to their Christmas smash hit, “All I want for Christmas is you” had been dropped by plaintiff Andy Stone. Stone wrote a song by the same name, recorded by Vince Vance and the Valiants in 1989 (five years before Carey released her song). The two songs were not musically related at all, so Stone’s copyright infringement argument hinged on the use of the title. Reading about the dropped lawsuit reminded me of another classic Christmas song with a similar history and different outcome.
In August of 1943, composer Walter Kent and lyricist Kim Gannon penned and copyrighted the sentimental favorite, “I’ll be home for Christmas,” as an unpublished copyright deposit (registration number EU799743). The next month, Kent and Gannon copyrighted the published sheet music under the registration number E pub 117336; that sheet music is digitized and available to download in full on the Library of Congress website (made available by Gannon & Kent Music Company). Bing Crosby’s 1943 recording of “I’ll be home for Christmas” scored major success immediately, setting to music the longing and melancholy of soldiers abroad and families at home surviving a wartime Christmas. While Kent and Gannon are the only names credited on the original copyright deposit, the label on Crosby’s recording credits “I’ll be home for Christmas” to three names: Kent, Gannon, and Buck Ram. Buck Ram has some serious songwriting credits to his name, including The Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone)” and “The Great Pretender”; if he’s not credited in the original copyright deposit for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” then why and how does he factor into subsequent attributions?
Ace Collins recounts the anecdotal backstory of the Christmas classic in his book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, and sets the scene: the three songwriters are gathered at a New York diner just before Christmas in 1942, sharing stories over a meal. According to Collins, Ram pulled out a piece of music for a song he had written decades prior while away at college and missing his mother. Ram called the tune “I’ll be home for Christmas (Tho’ just in memory),” and predicted a new holiday hit with its release. Collins continues: “That night, Ram did not arrive home with his copy of his song. He assumed he had left it on the table at the diner. Because his publisher had a copyrighted copy, he put the missing sheet music out of his mind…” (p. 50) According to Copyright Office records, Ram copyrighted “I’ll be home for Christmas (Tho’ just in memory)” on December 21, 1942 (registration number E pub 110246).Kent and Gannon copyrighted “I’ll be home for Christmas” in August of 1943, half a year after the storied diner meetup and Ram’s copyright registration. The two songs bear no similarities in musical content nor in most of the lyrical content, save for the title. But when Ram discovered that Bing Crosby was recording a song called “I’ll be home for Christmas” by Kent and Gannon, emotions were triggered; Ram was convinced that sharing his own song with the songwriters had prompted their inspiration, and he sued them accordingly. Court proceedings confirmed that the title was the only element traceable back to Ram’s song, but because of the timing of their diner conversation and copyright history, the judge ruled that Ram should be credited and a recipient of royalties. As Collins explains, “The ruling did not happen in time for Ram’s name to appear on the initial release of Crosby’s single, however, and the first pressing went out with just Gannon and Kent listed as writers.” (p. 52) If you look at first pressing, label Decca 18570, you’ll see that Ram’s name is missing. All subsequent pressings credit Ram as a songwriter.
Regardless of its copyright history, “I’ll be home for Christmas” became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific, and has since entered the canon of Christmas classics, having been recorded by a wide array of artists from Perry Como and Frank Sinatra to Kelly Clarkson and Camila Cabello. We hope that our readers find themselves home for the holidays or wherever “the lovelight gleams”; and if not this year, may you relive favorite holidays of the past – if only in your dreams.