We were just talking about the latest efforts to remove termination rights from musicians (and other artists), and a number of termination rights battles are still ongoing. Most of the existing ones are slightly different from the ones we’re talking about — and it gets pretty down in the weeds technically. In short, there are different rules for works created prior to 1978 and those after 1978. Most of the focus is on the termination rights for works created after 1978 — though there are some interesting ongoing battles concerning works created prior to 1978… including that song you just can’t stop hearing this time of year: Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Judge Shira Scheindlin (yes, the judge who recently got attention for killing NYC’s stop and frisk program, and then being removed from the case for a rather bizarre claim of bias) has now ruled that the heirs of the authors of that song, John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie, cannot terminate the copyright assignment, currently held by EMI, and thus EMI gets to retain the rights to that jingle you can’t get out of your head no matter how many times you try.
You can read the details of the ruling at the link above or embedded below. I don’t have any particular problem with the details of the ruling itself. The whole termination process is a mess — especially for pre-1978 works — and this is yet another case where unclear contracts likely led to this result. The reason I’m bringing up this bit of Christmas music copyright fighting is just to note that the song was written in 1934, at which time the maximum copyright that Coots and Gillespie could have hoped for was 56 years (28 years upon registration, with another 28 years if they renewed). That means that for the two of them, the incentive of having that copyright (which they then assigned away to Leo Feist, Inc.) last until 1990, was clearly all the incentive they needed to write and release that song. Under the basic terms of the deal that the public granted to the copyright holder, in 1990, that song belonged in the public domain.
Of course, thanks to the 1976 Copyright Act — which extended copyright terms massively — and then the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, which extended copyright terms, yet again, for another 20 years, the song didn’t go into the public domain in 1990. Nor has it reached the public domain today, 23 years later. Nor will it reach the public domain for many more years — potentially never, if the recording industry is successful in extending copyright terms, as many expect. However, it seems somewhat ridiculous that the work did not go into the public domain in 1990. That was the deal that was struck when it was written. The song was to become part of the public domain. That didn’t happen and the public got nothing in return for not being given what it was promised.
So, go ahead and sing whatever Christmas songs you like this seasons, but remember that thanks to the recording industry and Congress, you better not pout, you better just pay up your royalties in perpetuity, because the public domain is never coming to this town if they can help it.
The full opinion on the next page…
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