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Songwriter’s heirs reclaim rights to holiday classic


By Larry Neumeister, From The Associated Press

You’d better watch out: “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” is comin’ back into the hands of the heirs of a songwriter who composed it.

Rejecting a lower-court ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on Thursday ruled for a daughter and grandchildren of John Frederick Coots.

Coots, who wrote the music for hundreds of songs before his 1985 death, co-wrote the song in 1933 with James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie, who died in 1975.

“Terrific!” said Coots’ lone surviving child, Gloria Coots Baldwin, in a telephone conversation from her Boca Raton, Florida, home.

David Milian, one of the plantiffs’ lawyers, called the decision “a milestone in the development of copyright law” because of the lengths the circuit went to analyze the termination rights of artists under copyright law.

Baldwin, 81, and two granddaughters sued EMI Feist Catalog Inc. in the Southern District in 2012, claiming entitlement to re-establish their share of publishing copyright ownership in December 2016.

However, Southern District Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled that EMI Feist (NYLJ, Dec. 19, 2013) could hold the rights until 2029. EMI Feist is an arm of the London-based music company EMI Group.

The Second Circuit reversed that decision in Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, 14-182-cv. The opinion was written by Judge Debra Ann Livingston and joined by Judges Rosemary Ann Pooler and Christopher Droney.

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, characterized by Livingston as a “complex statutory regime,” 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 The key issue in the dispute was whether the 1981 agreement superseded an earlier 1951 agreement.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.

The Second Circuit concluded that EMI owned the rights under the 1981 agreement, giving them the right to terminate the rights as of 2016.

Baldwin, who is one of the composer’s four children, said she initiated the legal case for the benefit of younger relatives.

She said the family had always received a songwriter’s royalty cut but no longer got payouts from publishing rights. She said she did not know how much those rights were worth.

“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Baldwin said.

According to court papers, Coots’ heirs had been offered $2.75 million by EMI about eight years ago to drop claims.

Lawyers opposing the lawsuit had argued that Coots gave up some rights when he in 1981 accepted $100,000, which he distributed to his children.

The current heirs were described in the lawsuit as Baldwin, three granddaughters and three grandsons.

Baldwin recalled him as a “tough” father who “liked to go to the track” but was mostly careful with money.

“We never went hungry. We always had nice clothes. We went to public schools,” she said.

Baldwin said her father wrote the music while Gillespie wrote lyrics on the back of an envelope after a publisher told the pair: “Write me something for Christmas, a novelty.”

“It was just for Christmastime. You didn’t hear it in June or July,” she said. The tune gained fame after Eddie Cantor sang it on his radio program in 1934.

Now, decisions about the song’s use are made by granddaughters of Coots living in Connecticut and California.

Baldwin said she had no plans for new income. “At my age, trying to get up in the morning is my goal of the day,” she said.

Thomas Landry of Carey Rodriguez O’Keefe Milian Gonya represented the plaintiffs.

Donald S. Zakarian of Pryor Cashman represented EMI Feist. He declined to comment.

Related Decisions:

Baldwin v. EMI Feist Catalog, 14-182-cv

IMAGE: John Frederick Coots, top, and James Lamont “Haven” Gillespie, co-writers of 1933 song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”

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