Christmas came early this year: Copyrights to Santa song returned to original composer!

santa-1443621Co-authored by Ms. Shristi Bansal, LexOrbis Associate and Ms. Rushali Srivastava, third year student of Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad.

 

It is going to be a ‘very merry Christmas’ for Gloria Coots Baldwin, Patricia Bergdahl and Christine Palmitessa, heirs of the songwriter John Frederick (hereinafter Coots), who wrote the most celebrated Christmas song – ‘Santa Clause in comin’ to town’.  John wrote this song along with Haven Gillespie in 1934.

In a landmark judgment, the US Court of Appeals, in Baldwin v. EMI Fiest Catalog Inc.[1], reversed the District Court’s decision and held that the copyrights in the musical composition of the famous song held by EMI Feist Catalog Inc. are to be terminated next year and reverted to the Coots. This case centers on the termination rights of songwriters under US copyright law. Let’s have a look at the facts here – the worldwide copyrights were granted to EMI’s predecessor-in-interest, Leo Feist Inc. in 1934 through an agreement, after which the song got registered under Feist’s name. Subsequently, vide agreement of 1951 all renewals to copyrights were granted.  Subsequently various deals were made between the songwriters and their publisher in 1951 and 1981.

Given the various negotiations that had occurred in relation to this song over the years, EMI argued that the Coots estate no longer had a termination right (since there were complications with termination rights where publishing deals were previously renegotiated). Back in 2007, Coots’ estate filed termination papers, putting EMI on notice that they wanted to take back the rights in the song. It was countered by arguing that Coots gave up some rights when he in 1981 accepted $100,000, which he distributed to his children. The estate on the other hand contended that the 1981 deal constituted a new contract and that termination should be allowed 35 years after that arrangement.

However, back in 1981 Leo Feist never filed the appropriate papers with the US Copyright Office to confirm that fact, so at first instance in this dispute the courts sided with EMI, ruling that the Coots family no longer had the right to terminate. Under US copyright law, songwriters have a right to terminate their publishing contracts after 35 years, though that law stems from the mid-1970s, so the impact of it has only started to occur in recent years. Yet, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals new ruling is that the 1981 agreement “made it sufficiently clear that the parties intended to replace the earlier contract”[2], even though some of the required formalities hadn’t been fulfilled.

Thus, the Second Circuit Court here now concludes that the termination would be according to 2007 notice, hereby meaning that EMI will now lose its rights over the song on December 15, 2016. It can be however be seen that as the song would be now in public domain, a huge reprieve will come over to artists like Justin Bieber, Bruce Springsteen, Green Day, who have made numerous versions of the songs and paid royalties.

 

[1] 14-182-cv; Original Judgment available on http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/ca2/14-182/14-182-2015-10-08.html

[2] Ibid.

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