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EMI Music Snatched Rights to ‘Santa Claus’|from Dying Songwriter, His Estate Claims

(CN) - EMI Music snatched away the rights to songwriter Haven Gillespie's entire catalogue, including "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and "Breezin' Along with the Breeze," one year before he died, "mentally impaired" from lifelong alcoholism, his daughter-in-law claims in Manhattan Federal Court. Gillespie and his collaborator, J. Fred Coots, dreamed up the Santa Claus song while riding a New York subway in the 1930s.

Audrey Gillespie sued EMI Music Publishing and five EMI affiliates, seeking an accounting and royalties. Haven Gillespie also was co-writer of the standard, "You Go to My Head."

James Lamont "Haven" Gillespie was born in 1888. He dropped out of school in the fourth grade to start work as a typesetter. In 1909, he married Corene Parker, who bore their only child, Haven Gillespie, in 1910.

Gillespie's song "Breezin' Along with the Breeze" became a hit after Josephine Baker recorded it. The Three Suns and Perry Como recorded their own hit version in the 1950s.

Enduring fame came when Gillespie wrote "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." Gillespie and his collaborator, J. Fred Coots, hit upon the song while riding a New York subway, the daughter in law says. Eddie Cantor made the tune an "instant hit" in his 1934 recording, according to the complaint.

That year Gillespie and Coots signed a copyright agreement with EMI's predecessor, Leo Feist Inc., in exchange for one-third of revenue from the song, including record sales, radio broadcasts and movie soundtracks, the lawsuit states. The company also promised to send the men quarterly accounting statements. Gillespie signed similar agreements for other songs with EMI's affiliates.

In 1960, Gillespie and his son renewed their rights to all the songs, except "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." By 1974, Gillespie was "mentally impaired" from years of alcoholism and one year away from death, according to the complaint.

That year, representatives from EMI predecessors and subsidiaries had Gillespie sign papers allowing EMI to take control of his entire catalogue, with vague claims about needing to "avoid disruption" of the international sales of Gillespie's songs, the complaint states. EMI allegedly did not offer any compensation for that deal.

"At the time of these letters, Gillespie ... could not have comprehended the legal significance of his conduct," the lawsuit states.

Gillespie died in March 1975, leaving the rights to all of his songs to his son.

In 1982, the American Guild of Authors and Composers sent a notice to EMI predecessor Leo Feist on behalf of Gillespie's son, terminating the company's rights to "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" and 19 other songs, according to the complaint. In 1990, the son assigned the rights to those songs to the Haven Gillespie Music Publishing Company.

The younger Haven Gillespie died, leaving the song rights to his wife, plaintiff Audrey Gillespie. Audrey Gillespie says she discovered the 1974 assignment letters in 2007. They are attached as exhibits to the complaint.

EMI still claims ownership to Gillespie's entire catalogue. His daughter-in-law disputes that. She sued EMI Music Publishing, EMI Catalogue Partnership, EMI Mills Music Inc., EMI Miller Catalog Inc., EMI Robbins Catalog Inc. and EMI Feist Catalogue Inc. She wants Gillespie's share of EMI's income from the international sale of his songs, and damages for unjust enrichment.

She is represented by Robert Meloni and Thomas McCaffrey with Meloni & McCaffrey.

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