EMI sued over rights in Santa Claus Is Comin To Town

By | Published on Thursday 22 December 2011


See, we’re being festive, we’re reporting on a bit of pop litigation relating to a Christmas song.

The estate of the late songwriter J Fred Coots is suing EMI’s music publishing company as part of a long running attempt to wrestle back control of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin To Town’, that much covered Christmas track that, although clearly tarnished by Justin Bieber’s terrible version having been allowed into the public domain, is nevertheless a big earner at this time of year.

The legal dispute relates to a feature of US copyright law that allows songwriters who assign their copyrights to a third party, usually a commercial entity, to revoke that assignment, just once, after a period of time. For songs where original assignment took place after 1978 (when the current termination clause was introduced) that period of time is 35 years (which, maths fans will notice, means the impact of this 1978 law is only just about to really kick in, so look out for that).

But for pre-1978 songs, like the 1934 song ‘Santa Claus Is Comin To Town’, it’s slightly more complicated, though this dispute isn’t about whether a termination right exists in theory, rather EMI says that Coots has already used up his termination card.

Coots, who co-wrote the Santa Claus track with Haven Gillespie in 1934, originally assigned the copyright in it to a music publishing company headed by one Leo Feist. The song remained with Feist’s company, and its successors, until the early 1980s. In 1981 Coots sent a notice of termination to the successor of Feist’s company, but subsequently agreed a new deal, so control stayed with that publisher. That publisher was later bought by EMI.

Coots died in 1985. Then, in 2004, his estate sent a new termination notice to EMI, subsequently doing a deal with Warner Music’s publishing company over Coots’ songs. EMI, however, is trying to hang on to Coots’ catalogue, arguing that US copyright law only allows one termination, and that occurred in 1981.

Lawyers for the Coots estate, however, argue that the 1981 termination notice was never filed with the US Copyright Office and was therefore invalid. Meaning the 2004 notice is legit, and EMI should relinquish control of Coot’s songs, including ‘Santa Claus Is Comin To Town’, to Warner. And with that in mind they’ve now filed legal papers with the Florida court seeking judicial confirmation of their claims.

But EMI is sticking to its interpretation of events. A spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter: “US copyright law provides authors and their heirs with the one-time right to terminate a grant of US copyright. J Fred Coots and his family exercised that right in 1981, and were then paid a significant amount – and continue to be paid significant amounts – for a new grant of rights.  Their contention that the supposed failure to file the 1981 notice of termination with the Copyright Office is meaningful is completely inconsistent with the plain language of the Copyright Act. The heirs have no right to terminate a second time. Their claims are baseless and EMI fully expects that they will be dismissed”.

So, there you go, Santa Claus is coming to town for a big legal barney over a bit of American copyright law. Have a happy holiday, people.