Many see Christmas as a beacon in the season of perpetual hope, a time to give, share and settle petty squabbles with clemency. Those people have likely never been embroiled in a copyright battle for one of the most lucrative songs of the season; members in that camp can attest that regardless of the mood of the season, sharing does not come first.

That certainly seems to be the feeling in a recent ruling that determined the ownership of the popular Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” On Dec. 16, Judge Shira Scheindlin of the Southern District of New York rebuffed an attempt by the family of the song’s composer that would have wrestled ownership from the EMI Feist Catalog, Inc. record label.

The Feist Catalog has owned the rights to the song since 1934 when the composers John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie entered into a contract that granted them exclusive rights to its distribution for a 28 year period. The Feist catalog was eventually assimilated by EMI, and additional contract renewals took place. But in 2009, the Coots family says the contract expired and they once again became the owners of the song.

The Coots family first sued EMI in 2011, claiming that they had terminated EMI’s United States ownership of the copyright in 2009 under Section 304(d) of the 1976 Copyright Act or, alternatively, as of 2016 under Section 203.  EMI was able to have these assertions thrown out in 2012, based on lack of evidence from the Coots family. EMI’s interpretation was that Coot’s had an opportunity to terminate the agreement in 1981, but he had eventually agreed to keep the rights with EMI, incentivized by additional royalty payments.

Following this decision, the suit was then resubmitted in New York Southern District court.

In the most recent ruling the second attempt by the Coots family to terminate EMI’s ownership of the United States copyright was shot down, and the song will now remain with the label until the United States copyright expires in 2029. 

Donald S. Zakarin, lead counsel for EMI and chair of Pryor Cashman’s Litigation Group, said in a release that, “Judge Scheindlin’s extremely clear and well-reasoned decision, while not directly implicating the termination rights under Section 203, provides statutory guidance to both those resisting termination and those seeking to effect termination.  We presented the Court with complicated analyses of the interplay of the termination requirements of Section 304 (many of which are equally applicable to Section 203) and are obviously delighted with the decision.”

Unfortunately the Coots’ won’t be the owners of this song for another 16 Christmases. Following their courtroom lose we’re sure they’re hoping the next Santa suit they see is the red one with the white fur trim.


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