“Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is back into the hands of the heirs of a songwriter who composed it. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that rights to the classic yulertide ditty – the all-time most performed holiday song – will revert to the heirs of J. Fred Coots – his daughter Gloria and his six grandchildren.
Coots, who died in 1985, co-wrote the song with James Lamont “Haven” Gillespiein in 1934, and made a deal with Leo Feist, who ran a music publishing company that was eventually acquired by EMI. In 1976, the U.S. Congress allowed authors or their heirs to terminate copyright grants to publishers after 35 years. Coot’s heirs sued EMI Feist Catalog Inc. in the Southern District in 2012, claiming entitlement to re-establish their share of publishing copyright ownership in December 2016. However, Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that EMI Feist (NYLJ, Dec. 19, 2013) could hold the rights until 2029. EMI Feist is an arm of the London-based music company EMI Group.
During the long history of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, Coots’ family and EMI’s predecessors made various agreements with each other. In particular, Coots granted renewal rights in 1951 and made a $100,000 rights deal in 1981 that allowed the publisher to continue to exploit the song. The challenge for the 2nd Circuit was deciding whether EMI owned rights under the 1951 agreement or the 1981 agreement.The key issue was whether the 1981 agreement superseded an earlier 1951 agreement. If it did, then the Copyright Act would give the plaintiffs the right to terminate the agreement.
In reversing the district court’s decision, 2nd Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston, who sat with Judge Rosemary Ann Pooler and Judge Christopher Droney, held that the later agreement is most important — that the “1981 Agreement made it sufficiently clear that the parties intended to replace the earlier contract.” Further, the court held that Coots’s failure to record a termination notice in 1981 is “irrelevant,” and that’s what’s most essential is that EMI’s rights flowed from the 1981 agreement. As this is a post-1978 copyright grant,, the 2nd Circuit found that a 2007 termination notice was valid, and EMI will loses the rights in 2016. According to court papers, Coots’ heirs had been offered $2.75 million by EMI about eight years ago to drop the claims.
In May 2012 Victor Willis, the former lead singer of The Village People, succeeded in reclaiming ownership of his share of “YMCA”, In The NAvy” and a number of other massive Village People hits which he wrote and co-wrote in the 1970s.
Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, 14-182-cv.