Music Company EMI Keeps Rights to Christmas Classic

, New York Law Journal


Just in time for Christmas, Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin (See Profile) has ruled that music publisher EMI can keep the rights to the 1934 hit song "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" for another 25 years, leaving the family of co-songwriter John Frederick Coots out in the cold.

The family members sued EMI in 2011 after repeatedly serving notices that they were terminating their copyright agreement with EMI. The Copyright Act of 1976 gives copyright licensors the right to terminate an agreement after a certain amount of time. A licensor can only serve a notice of termination once.

Coots served such a notice in 1981, and was able to get a $100,000 bonus in exchange for extending the license. The key issue in the dispute was whether the 1981 agreement superseded an earlier 1951 agreement. If it did, then the Copyright Act would give the plaintiffs the right to terminate the agreement. If it didn't, the 1951 agreement would remain in effect until 2029, since Coots already used his termination rights to secure a bonus.

Scheindlin found that the 1951 agreement remained in effect because the parties did not properly record the 1981 agreement with the Copyright Office and did not clearly express an intention to terminate it in 1951.

"Plaintiffs have served Termination Notices in 2004, 2007, and 2012," the judge said. "Unfortunately for Plaintiffs, the 1951 Agreement survives them all."

The plaintiffs are represented by Caplan & Ross and Carey, Rodriguez, Greenberg, O'Keefe.

EMI is represented by Pryor Cashman.

The case is Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, 1:12-cv-09360.

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