Earlier this autumn, the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the rights to the classic Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” will revert to the heirs of its co-writer J. Fred Coots in 2016. The case centered on the termination rights of songwriters under US copyright law.
J. Fred Coots co-wrote “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” with Haven Gillespie in 1934. The pair then assigned their rights in the song to Leo Feist’s music publishing company, with subsequent extension agreements being made between the songwriters and Feist in 1951 and 1981. Later in the 1980s, EMI Music Publishing acquired Feist’s publishing catalogue including the Christmas song.
The Legal Issues
Under US copyright law, songwriters or their heirs may terminate publishing contracts after 35 years. In 2007, Coots’ estate therefore sought to terminate the agreement with EMI and take back the rights to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”. However, termination rights are complicated where the relevant publishing agreements have been renegotiated and EMI countered that the Coots estate no longer had a termination right. When the matter was heard in 2013, Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in favour of EMI. She stated that EMI could hold the rights in the song until the end of 2029, at which point (under US copyright legislation applicable to copyright works published before the 1976 Copyright Act came into force) copyright in the song would expire as it was 95 years from the year of publication of the song.
The question for the US Appeals Court was whether EMI owned rights under the 1951 agreement or the 1981 agreement. If it was determined that the 1981 agreement superseded the 1951 agreement, the Coots estate would have the right to terminate 35 years after the date of that agreement, ie in 2016.
On appeal, the 2nd Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston held that the 1981 agreement “made it sufficiently clear that the parties intended to replace the earlier contract”. In addition, the court ruled that Coots’ failure to serve a termination notice in 1981 was irrelevant and that the central issue was that EMI’s rights derived from the 1981 agreement. As a result, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals found that the 2007 termination notice was valid and that EMI will lose the rights to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” in 2016.
How do I find out more?
For further information on music publishing rights please contact Pete Bott.