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Sweet December in Store for ‘Santa Claus’ Heirs

MANHATTAN (CN) - The rights to the popular Christmas song "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" should revert back to the heirs of the songwriter next year, the Second Circuit ruled on Thursday.

Writing for the three-judge panel, U.S. Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston said the rights to the popular Christmas song should revert to the heirs of John Frederick Coots, one of its writers, instead of being held by music publishing company EMI Feist Catalog.

The ruling is the latest in an eight-year legal battle between the parties and reverses a previous decision by the Manhattan Federal Court which stipulated EMI would hold the rights until 2029. Barring an appeal, the rights to the song will now revert back to Coots' heirs in December 2016.

J. Frederick Coots wrote "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" with Haven Gillespie in the early 1930s, and it was first performed on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934. Despite it being the depth of the Great Depression, Cantor's rendition of the song reportedly sold over 30,000 records and moved 100,000 copies of the sheet music in just 24 hours.

It has since been recorded by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys to Miley Cyrus to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whose Dec. 12, 1975 live performance at C.W. Post College in New York became a classic rock staple.

Coots and Gillespie sold the copyright to EMI predecessor Leo Feist Inc. in 1934, and a subsequent 1951 revision to the deal assigned the songs copyright to Feist in exchange for royalties, with an expiration date of 1990.

The successor to Feist, Robbins Music Corporation, then agreed to pay Coots' children annual bonuses of $100,000 from 1981 to 1995.

In the meantime, Congress enacted what Judge Livingston described as a "complex statutory regime" -- the 1976 Copyright Act -- that afforded authors and their heirs the right to terminate previous copyright grants under certain circumstances.

The plaintiffs subsequently sent EMI two termination notices, but the entertainment industry giant maintained the original agreement was iron-clad and that it maintained the rights.

In 2009 Gillespie's heirs sued EMI, alleging the music company stole the rights to the song (as well as others in Gillespie's catalogue) just before he died, and while he was "mentally impaired" from lifelong alcoholism.

The suit asked for a declaratory judgment that would honor either the 2007 or 2012 termination notices, which would terminate EMI's hold over the copyright in 2016 or 2021, respectively.

A similar lawsuit by Coots' heirs was filed in 2011. Years of legal wrangling between Coots' heirs and EMI ensued, with the music company stating its copyright "has not been and cannot be terminated."

The district court agreed, granting summary judgment to EMI, prompting the heirs to appeal.

On review, the Second Circuit held the original 1951 agreement between plaintiffs and EMI no longer counted, and that the more recent 1981 agreement-and the subsequent termination notices under that agreement-should have held sway over the copyright.

EMI had argued that, because the 1981 termination notice was never recorded, it shouldn't have counted and that it should have been entitled to ownership of the song's full copyright.

But Livingston said that fact was irrelevant, however, because the 1981 agreement would hold up either way. "And for deciding whether plaintiffs' termination notices pursuant to [federal copyright law] are valid, that is all that matters," she wrote.

Livingston continued: "At the start, our conclusion that the 1981 Agreement became the operative source of EMI's rights immediately upon its execution suggests that even if EMI's premise that the 1981 agreement 'covers the right to publication' were sound, publication would have occurred under that agreement in 1981."

"Thus," she said, "even the alternative calculation method that EMI prefers would yield an earliest-possible termination date of 2016. Regardless, EMI's premise is incorrect.

"In sum: EMI does not dispute that the 1981 Agreement was executed on December 15, 1981. Because that grant was 'executed by the author' and does not 'cover the right of publication,' it is terminable ... starting on December 15 2016 -- which is the effective date of termination stated in the 2007 Termination Notice. Accordingly, we conclude that the 2007 Termination Notice will terminate the 1981 Agreement on that date," Livingston concluded.

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