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Sony Loses Santa Claus Song Rights, Better Not Cry

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on October 12, 2015 10:46 AM

Sony better watch out and better not pout. I'm telling you why. Santa Claus may keep coming to town, figuratively speaking. But the company won't make money from people singing about it starting in 2016.

Last week, a Second US Circuit Court of Appeals panel of judges ruled that the rights to the song "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" will revert back to the owner's heirs under copyright law. The song was written in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

The Story of a Song

Mr. Coots and a co-author, Haven Gillespie, sold the song to Leo Feist (now EMI Feist Catalog, Inc. and partially owned by Sony) in the same year it was written, 1934. The copyright deal was renewed in 1981. Four years later, Coots died.

Almost two decades after the renewed deal, in 2012, the Coots family filed suit, claiming they canceled the agreement in 2007 and that rights revert to them by Christmas 2016. The company had offered the Coots heirs $2.75 million for the song, which they rejected. And the case was resolved in the courts.

Two years ago, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin of Manhattan ruled for Sony, finding that the rights to the song stay with Sony until 2029. At that point, the song will belong to everyone. It will be in the public domain and copyright will have expired altogether.

An Early Christmas for the Coots Family

The appeals court reversed the ruling, finding for the family. By the holiday season next year, the song rights will revert to the Coots heirs. If the decision made them feel like kids on Christmas Day, they did not say.

An attorney for the family, Thomas K. Landry, told the Wall Street Journal Law Blog that he's grateful for the appellate court's "well-reasoned decision," which adds clarity to a particularly unsettled area of copyright law involving termination rights.

Perhaps keeping in mind the advice in the disputed song itself, Sony did not publicly pout, shout or cry. It also did not comment on the case. After all, Santa knows if we've been good or bad, so maybe the company was just being good for goodness sake.

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