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Santa song to stay with EMI

By | Published on Thursday 19 December 2013


The timings of this case seem too perfect. Almost exactly two years ago it emerged that the estate of late songwriter J Fred Coots was suing EMI Music Publishing over the rights in one of his songs, the seasonal ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’. And now, just as festive tunes are all over the radio and in-store sound systems once again, a judgement has been made in the case.

As previously reported, the lawsuit related to the so called ‘termination right’ that exists in US copyright law and which allows songwriters who assign ownership of songs they write to a publisher for the full life of the copyright to have one go at getting it back, or more commonly to negotiate more favourable terms with their existing publisher. The bit of 1970s legislation that introduced the right is only really kicking in now because of the time that must pass before termination becomes an option.

‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ was written in 1934 and the rights in it assigned to a publisher call Leo Feist Inc, which was subsequently acquired by EMI in the 1980s. In his lifetime Coots renegotiated his deal with Feist twice, in 1951 and 1981.

More recently the Coots family has tried to issue a new termination notice, reportedly so that they could cut a deal with Warner/Chappell over the festive hit, claiming that while their father may have technically used up his one-time chance at terminating his publishing deal in 1981, the paperwork associated with that arrangement was not filed with the US Copyright Office as the termination law requires. Therefore, the Coots children and grandchildren said, they should be able to terminate their EMI deal once again.

However, according to Variety, although the judge hearing the case conceded this week that the lack of paperwork in 1981 created problems for EMI, she seemingly then concluded that the 1951 arrangement – although predating the introduction of the termination rule – used up Coots’ one-time statutory right to terminate. Therefore the rights in the Santa ditty will remain with EMI until they expire in 2029.

The EMI publishing company’s legal rep Donald Zakarin told Variety that the ruling “provides statutory guidance to both those resisting termination and those seeking to effect termination”.