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EMI loses Santa Claus Is Coming To Town in termination rights case

By | Published on Friday 9 October 2015


Well, they could have waited a couple of months to rule on this, given this lawsuit was nicely filed just as the Christmas festivities were getting under way in 2011, and then the original ruling followed almost exactly two years later. But now we have an autumnal development in the long-running copyright dispute over the song ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’.

This case centres on the termination rights of songwriters under US copyright law. The writers of the festive hit, J Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, assigned the rights in the song to publisher Leo Feist back in the 1930s, with subsequent deals being made between the songwriters and their publisher in 1951 and 1981. EMI Music Publishing then acquired Feist’s publishing company and catalogue later in the 1980s.

Under US copyright law, songwriters have a right to terminate their publishing contracts after 35 years, though that law stems from the mid-1970s, so the impact of it has only started to occur in recent years. Back in 2007, Coots’ estate filed termination papers, putting EMI on notice that they wanted to take back the rights in the song. Word had it there had been talks to transfer administration of the work to Warner/Chappell.

There are complications with termination rights where publishing deals have previously been renegotiated. Given the various renegotiations that had occurred in relation to this song over the years, EMI therefore argued that the Coots estate no longer had a termination right. The estate countered that the 1981 deal constituted a new contract and that termination should be allowed 35 years after that arrangement.

However, back in 1981 Feist never filed the appropriate papers with the US Copyright Office to confirm that fact, so at first instance in this dispute the courts sided with EMI, ruling that the Coots family no longer had the right to terminate.

An appeal followed, and this week judges in the Second Circuit Court Of Appeals ruled that the 1981 agreement “made it sufficiently clear that the parties intended to replace the earlier contract”, even though some of the required formalities hadn’t been fulfilled. Therefore, the contract as currently stands had never been renegotiated, termination rights stand, and the family can bloody well get the copyright back next year.

So that’s fun. EMI is yet to comment, but the lawyer repping the Coots family said it was a “well-reasoned decision”.