by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
In 1934, J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie sold their song “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “the right to secure copyright therein” to Leo Feist, Inc. In return, Feist agreed to publish the song and pay them royalties.
At the time, copyright protection was only available for a maximum of 56 years. However, Congress has repeatedly extended the period of protection. As a result the rights to “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” will not expire until 2029 and are still worth millions of dollars. Which explains why Gloria Coots Baldwin, Patricia Bergdahl, and Christine Palmitessa (Coots’s heirs) have been trying for years to recover the copyright from EMI Feist Catalog, Inc. (Leo Feist’s successor).
Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in favor of Ms. Baldwin and her fellow plaintiffs. Copyright law is complicted–and so are the facts in this case–but the result is simple: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” will revert to Fred Coots’s heirs. They must have been very good indeed!