Village People songwriter wins copyright case

Michael P. Tremoglie May 9, 2012, 10:25am

SAN DIEGO (Legal Newsline) - The iconic disco song "Y.M.C.A." became a standard for copyright lawsuits Monday as the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California ruled in favor of Village People member Victor Willis in a copyright termination case.

Willis helped write many of the songs for the disco group The Village People. The group -- known for its costumes portraying Indians, police officers and other "macho" men -- had several big hits in the 1970's, including the huge hit song "Y.M.C.A." The song is played routinely even today almost four decades. Willis wore the motorcycle cop costume.

Willis gave the music publishers the rights to his compositions. He was to receive a certain percentage of money the publishers received from the sale and playing of the songs.

When Congress passed the Copyright Act of 1976, it contained a provision that allows artists to terminate a transfer of copyright or license by serving advance notice within certain specified parameters for copyrights and licenses transferred after Jan. 1, 1978. Willis served the publishers a "Notice of Termination of Post 1977 Grants of Copyrights on Certain Works of Victor Willis" in January 2011.

The publisher disputed the validity of the termination. It sought a judgment against Willis to withdraw the termination notice and to enjoin him making any future claims. The publishers argued that Willis was one of many authors of the work and cannot terminate his rights separately.

The publishers also said, initially, that Willis was a writer for hire and did not have rights in the works. But they subsequently withdrew this claim.

Willis filed a motion to dismiss the publishers' complaint.

The court said, "(I)t would be contrary to the purpose of the Act to require a majority of all joint authors who had, at various times, transferred their copyright interests in a joint work to terminate the legally permissible separate grant by one joint author of his undivided copyright interest in the work. The purpose of the Act was to 'safeguard authors against unremunerative transfers' and address 'the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work's value until it has been exploited.'"

Willis' motion to dismiss was granted. The music publishers' complaint is was dismissed for failure to state a claim.

The case has great ramifications for the music industry.

David Mayer is a professor of law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio. He said maybe more authors will be aware that they can bring this action.

"It is a fairly obscure provision of copyright law," he said. "We teach it in class. But it is not a common action."

He said that Congress put in these provisions to give young artists a "second bite of the apple" 35 years down the road.

"What they had in mind were young artists," Mayer said, "who, later on in their careers, when they are more established, could renegotiate with the publishers. They certainly had in mind the recording industry."

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