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Creator of the song “Santa Claus is comin’ to town”‘s heirs win historic victory

October 14, 2015

While we all “sort of” wind down for the December holidays, the Christmas songs that fill those who love them with so much cheer, will be pleased to know that the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has recently ruled in favour of a daughter and grandchildren of one of the writers of the song “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” against EMI.

In terms of US law, there is a unique section that allows licensors the right to terminate an agreement after a certain duration of time has expired. EMI, the licensor, served several notices to the family that it was terminating their copyright agreement in relation to the above song. A termination notice may only be served once.

Coots, the co-author (writer) of the song (i.e. he wrote the music; while Gillespie wrote the lyrics on the back of an envelope) served such a notice in 1981 and obtained a $100 000.00 bonus in exchange for extending the license in favour of EMI.

The critical question for the court to decide was whether the abovementioned 1981 agreement superseded an earlier 1951 agreement. If it did, then the plaintiffs (the daughter and grandchildren) would be allowed to terminate the agreement, as the 1981 agreement would be the first and only notice of termination. If it didn’t, the 1951 agreement would remain in effect until 2029 by virtue of Coots’ already using the termination notice clause of the US Copyright Act and obtaining the bonus referred to above.

The Second Circuit ruled in favour of the plaintiffs granting their claim and concluded that EMI only owned the rights under the 1981 agreement giving the plaintiffs the right to terminate the rights as of 2016.

We always love an underdog winning the battle against “big Music”. This is another such victory. The next stage will be the determination of the song’s use as claimed by granddaughters of Coots living in Connecticut and California.

Some commentators have called this judgment “a milestone in the development of copyright law” due to the fact that court stuck its neck out in order to analyse the duration/termination rights of authors under US Copyright law.

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