U.S. court returns 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town' to composer's heirs

Thu Oct 8, 2015 3:01pm EDT
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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) - "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," one of the December holiday season's most widely recognized tunes, is comin' back to the family of a man who helped write it.

Reversing a lower court ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said on Thursday that the heirs of J. Fred Coots, who co-wrote the Christmas classic with Haven Gillespie in 1934, are entitled to reclaim their copyright in the song from EMI Feist Catalog.

Writing for a three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston said it was "sufficiently clear" from a 1981 contract that EMI's rights will expire on Dec. 15, 2016, and not in 2029 as the publisher had argued.

Coots died in 1985. The lawsuit was brought by his daughter Gloria Coots Baldwin and granddaughters Patricia Bergdahl and Christine Palmitessa.

"Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" has been recorded by many artists, and a live version by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band is a December staple on U.S. radio stations.

But for copyright extensions, the song would be in the public domain, and artists would not owe royalties.

A lawyer for EMI did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Sony Corp, which court papers showed owns part of EMI Feist Catalog, declined to comment.

"The Coots family is grateful to the court of appeals for its conscientious and well-reasoned decision," the plaintiffs' lawyer Thomas Landry said.   Continued...

Singer Bruce Springsteen performs with the E Street Band during his concert in Cape Town, in this January 26, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files