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.
Coots and Gillespie had in 1934 sold "Santa Claus" to EMI predecessor Leo Feist, and Coots in 1951 granted Leo Feist his copyright renewal rights, which EMI sought to enforce.
But the plaintiffs said Coots in 1981 signed a new copyright agreement, and sent a notice to the U.S. Copyright Office that voided the 1951 agreement. They also said a 2007 notice terminated the 1981 agreement, effective on Dec. 15, 2016.
In December 2013, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin in Manhattan said the 1951 agreement remained in effect because the 1981 termination notice was never recorded.
Livingston, however, said that failure was "irrelevant," and that the 1981 agreement made clear that the parties intended to transfer "all of Coots's interest in the copyright."
The case is Coots Baldwin et al v. EMI Feist Catalog Inc, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 14-182.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Toni Reinhold