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Family Wants Rights Back|to ‘Santa Claus’ Song

WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - The descendants of a co-author of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" want the copyright back from the EMI Group.

The famous tune was written by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie in 1934. Coots wrote the music; Gillespie wrote the words.

J. Fred Coots, 1897-1985, assigned his interest in the song to his survivors. The plaintiffs - Coots' daughter and granddaughters - say they own more than one-half of Coots' original half share in the tune.

J. Fred Coots also was author or co-author of the standards "You Go To My Head" and "For All We Know." According to the legend of Tin Pan Alley, Coots knocked out the tune in 10 minutes after Gillespie brought him the words.

The song was first broadcast on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934. One hundred thousand orders had been placed for the sheet music by the next day, and more than 400,000 copies of the music were sold by that Christmas. It has been recorded by hundreds or thousands of bands.

Coots' daughter Gloria Coots Baldwin and his granddaughters Patricia Bergdahl, Robin Coots and Christine Palmitessa sued EMI Feist Catalog, a division of the EMI Group, in Federal Court.

They seek declaratory judgment that EMI's interests in the song terminated in 2009, in accord with a notice given in 2004, or alternatively, that it will terminate in 2016, in accord with a notice given in 2007.

EMI Feist Catalog Inc. is the song's publisher and successor in interest to Leo Feist, the original assignee under the 1934 copyright, the complaint states.

Coots' family says Coots and Gillespie renewed the copyright grant in 1951 and 1961, and in 1981 Coots signed a notice of termination of the music publishing agreement, effective 1990.

But in 1982, the notice of termination was returned unrecorded, according to the complaint. Coots died 3 years later.

The plaintiffs say that in 2004 they filed to terminate EMI's interest in the tune, to be effective Sept. 27, 2009.

"On October 1, 2006, plaintiffs acting through and on behalf of Toy Town Tunes Inc., a publishing company responsible for managing some of Coots' works, John F. Coots, Jr. Trust, and WB Music Corporation (Warner), entered into an exclusive administrative agreement where Warner was to administer the rights related to some of the musical compositions composed by Coots," the complaint states.

They say Warner sent another notice of termination in 2007.

"On April 17, 2007, the 2007 notice was recorded in the Copyright Office. ... The 2007 notice listed 'EMI Feist Catalog, Inc. & EMI April Music, Inc.' as the grantees or grantees' successors whose rights were being terminated, 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town' as the title of the work to which the notice pertained, 'EP44456' as the original registration number for the work to which the notice pertained, 'December 15, 1981' as the date of execution of the grant being terminated and 'December 15, 2016' as the effective date of termination.

"On October 23, 2009, defendant, through counsel, Donald S. Zakarin Esq. from the law firm of Pryor Cashman, LLP, wrote Warner a letter arguing against plaintiffs' termination of the 1981 grant. ... In the 2009 letter, defendant contended that defendant's rights in the work could not be terminated and that defendant's rights in the work were valid until 2029, year of expiration of the copyright in the work.

"Defendant contended that the 1981 notice signed by Coots amounted to the exercise by Coots of his termination rights ..." the complaint states.

But the plaintiffs say, "The 1981 notice was never recorded with the Copyright Office. Indeed, the notice was returned by the Copyright Office unrecorded.

"Thus, the 1981 notice is invalid and unenforceable as it was never recorded before the effective date of termination listed in the notice (or October 23, 1990).

"Because the 1981 notice referenced a grant that was not terminable at the time the notice was signed because the 1981 notice purported to terminate a grant that was not for the renewal term and because the notice was not and has never been recorded with the Copyright Office before the effective date of termination, the 1981 notice is invalid and unenforceable.

"Since the 1981 notice is invalid and unenforceable, the 2004 termination notice was the only notice of termination made by the grantor ... and is therefore valid and enforceable. ... The effective date of termination in the 2004 notice is September 27, 2009 (or 75 years from when the copyright was secured)," according to the complaint.

The family adds: "Alternatively, if the court deems the 2004 notice and its related September 2009 termination to be invalid and unenforceable, plaintiffs seek judgment declaring valid and enforceable the notice of termination under 17 U.S.C. Section 203 recorded on April 17, 2007 with the United States Copyright Office under volume number 3550, document number 153, thereby terminating defendant's interests in the work effective December 15, 2016, the date of effective termination listed in the 2007 notice."

If the 2004 notice is deemed valid, Coots' family wants to be reimbursed for all the money EMI improperly received after the Sept. 27, 2009 termination of its interests in the song.

Coots' family is represented by David Milian, of Miami.

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