In what seems to be perfect timing for the season, a federal court has determined that the copyright for the popular holiday hit “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” will remain with EMI through 2029, when it enters the public domain.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in New York, issued on Monday, involves a provision of copyright law that allows creators or their heirs to reclaim the ownership of works they assigned to a publisher. But the so-called “termination right” is only effective if certain conditions are met.
John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie co-authored the song in 1934, and that year transferred ownership to publisher Leo Feist Inc. Coots made an agreement in 1951 to grant Feist all “renewals and extensions” in the song.
But following the passage of the Copyright Act of 1976, which gave creators the ability to reclaim copyright in their works no matter what type of agreement had been hashed out previously, Coots filed a notice of termination in 1981 with Feist, with an effective date to reclaim the copyright in 1990. They entered a new agreement with the publisher, which included a $100,000 bonus and royalties. EMI acquired Feist in the 1980s.
Coots died in 1985. But his daughter, Gloria Coots Baldwin, and granddaughters Patricia Bergdahl and Christine Palmitessa, have since sought to terminate that 1981 agreement. Complicating matters is the fact that the termination notice that Coots filed in 1981 was never recorded at the Copyright Office, as is required for it to be effective.
Scheindlin ruled that because the notice was never recorded, the 1951 agreement remains in effect. And she rejected arguments that the 1981 agreement superceded the 1951 agreement. Even though Coots’ family filed additional termination notices in 2004, 2007 and 2012, she ruled that they “do not get a second bite at the termination apple.” She noted that the 1981 notice produced an agreement that gave them the $100,000 bonus payment. “Plaintiffs’ ability to ‘wield the threat of termination’ to secure a better deal is exactly what Congress intended,” she noted.
The copyright to the song should have expired in 2009, when the work would fall into the public domain. But the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act in 1998 added another 20 years to the term.
Donald Zakarin of Pryor Cashman. lead counsel for EMI, said that the ruling “provides statutory guidance to both those resisting termination and those seeking to effect termination.”
Coots’ family was represented by Brian Caplan and Jonathan James Ross of Caplan & Ross, and David Phillip Milian of Carey, Rodriguez, Greenberg & O’Keefe.