EMI’s Copyright Rights in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” Terminates in December 2016 Under Second Circuit Ruling

In Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, Inc., the Second Circuit ruled that EMI’s rights to the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” will terminate, and the song’s copyright will return to the heirs of John Frederick Coots, the original author, in December 2016.

Coots wrote the song in 1934 and made a deal with Leo Feist who ran a publishing company that was eventually acquired by EMI.  In 1951, the Coots family and EMI’s predecessors made a renewal agreement, which was then followed by another $100K agreement in 1981 that allowed the publisher to continue use of the song.

However, Coots never recorded the termination of the 1951 agreement and based on that fact, the district court sided with EMI that the Coots family lost its right to terminate.  The Second Circuit reversed the district court’s decision and ruled that even though some of the required formalities were not fulfilled, the “1981 Agreement made it sufficiently clear that the parties intended to replace the earlier contract.”

Under the 1976 Copyright Act, songwriters have a right to terminate their publishing contracts after 35 years; meaning that in 2017, Coots’ heirs may utilize its termination rights to terminate its publishing contract with EMI.

Thomas K. Landry, an attorney for the heirs, stated that the decision was “a milestone in the development of this increasingly important area of copyright law.”