Former Village People man Victor Willis, who wrote the lyrics to many of the pop combo’s biggest hits, says that he is close to regaining control of his slice of the copyright in the songs, having utilised a previously reported provision in American copyright law that allows songwriters and composers to reclaim rights previously assigned through contract to a publisher or other music company.
Willis confirmed he was going legal against Can’t Stop Productions over the songs in 2011, though it wasn’t immediately obvious that he was planning on exercising the so called ‘termination right’. This facility for American creators to reclaim their copyright after 35 years was introduced in a bit of 1978 legislation, which means the impact of it is only just kicking in. There are various criteria that must be fulfilled to qualify for the rights to revert, and a set procedure songwriters must go through to reclaim their copyrights.
Legal reps for the company which currently controls the rights in ‘YMCA’ and other Village People hits initially argued that Willis had written the songs on a ‘work for hire’ basis, which would mean the music company owned that copyrights from the outset, so no transfer of ownership by contract occurred, so no termination right could apply. But it seems that argument didn’t stand up in court, although the current copyright owners are planning on appealing the ruling against them.
Nevertheless, Willis has spoken to the New York Times about the prospect of regaining control of some of the rights in the Village People oeuvre, noting: “I learned over the years that there are some awesome powers associated with copyright ownership”, and adding: “I’ve had lots of offers, from record and publishing companies, a lot of stuff, but I haven’t made up my mind how it’s going to be handled”.
Aside from the appeal, there is still some other legal wrangling to be done over Willis’ ownership of the rights, because three names are credited on many of the 33 songs at stake – the original brains behind Village People Jacques Morali and French record producer Henri Belolo in addition to Willis – so it needs to be decided how the various copyrights will be divvied up.
But assuming Willis does get a slice of the action, aside from the boost in royalties he’ll receive, he could also win some control over the use of the songs, which could create issues for the aforementioned Can’t Stop Productions, who still operate a current incarnation of the Village People, who obviously need to be able to perform the hits.
While there remain legal challenges ahead for Willis, if he is ultimately successful the New York Times reckons he could be the first songwriter of hit pop songs to benefit from the 1978 termination right; though there are some other high profile artists believed to be in the process of reclaiming their copyrights under the system.
Willis told the Times: “I’m hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on. When you’re young, you just want to get out there and aren’t really paying attention to what’s on paper. I never even read one contract they put in front of me, and that’s a big mistake”.
The termination right mainly impacts on the music publishing sector, though some recording artists reckon the right should apply to sound recording copyrights too. The labels, needless to say, do not agree, in the main utilising the aforementioned ‘work for hire’ argument. There could be some interesting court battles ahead on that front, though the ‘work for hire’ thing does seem like a stronger claim for labels than publishers.
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