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'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town' Rights Passed to Author's Family

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on October 08, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Everyone knows the popular Christmas song, "Santa Clause is Comin' to Town." What's not so widely known is the story of the song's ownership. Currently, it's owned by Sony ... but not for much longer.

On Thursday, the Second Circuit ruled that the rights to the song will end in December of 2016 and will pass down to the descendants of John Frederick Coots, the original author.

Copyrighting Christmas?

Confusion behind the case begins in 1934, when Coots and his co-author Haven Gillespie sold the tune to one Leo Feist of EMI Feist (owned by Sony). In 1951, Coots grated copyright renewal rights to Feist which EMI sought to enforce.

Coot's descendants, however, claim that a 1981 copyright agreement that was sent to the US Copyright Office effectively voided the 1951 agreement. They finally argued that EMI was due to lose its ownership of the song in December 2016. The three-judge panel dismissed EMI's claim that it should continue to hold ownership until 2029.

A Miami based attorney, David Milian remarked that the decision was a "milestone in the development of copyright law" because of the 2nd Circuit's thoroughness in analyzing the termination rights of artists under current American copyright law.

Christmas Song Money

EMI had previously offered Coot's heirs $275,000,000 to drop claims of ownership of the song. The family had previously received a songwriter's royalty for its usage, but no longer received payouts from publishing rights. Coot's Lone surviving child, Gloria Coot Baldwin, claims that her impetus in bringing the suit was to benefit Coots grandchildren.

Maybe you recall when documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson brought a lawsuit in 2013 seeking recovery of the $1,500 she paid in order to use the song in her film "Happy Birthday." Many could not believe the content of the lawsuit. But the courts went through the entire procedure of discovery and Nelson's lawyers successfully argued that the song had been free of copyright protection since 1922, for want of proper notice. Without such notice, the work had been "interjected irrevocably into the public domain."

So there you have it. If you're the author of a catchy tune, it is recommended that you watch your copyright expiration dates very diligently.

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