Big news for anyone who’s been following the termination of transfer issue: a California judge has ruled in favor of Victor Willis, original singer of the Village People, in his battle with the publishing companies that administer rights for the Village People’s catalog. Last year, Willis had filed to terminate rights to his share of “YMCA” and thirty-two other songs that he co-wrote, and publishers responded by claiming he lacked legal standing to do so without having his co-authors on board. Judge Barry Ted Moskovitz disagreed, writing:
It would be contrary to the purpose of the [Copyright] 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. Under Plaintiffs’ interpretation, it would be more difficult to terminate an individual grant than it would be to make it in the first place.
Like many artists, Willis (pictured here in uniform) had handed over rights to the publishers at an early stage of his career when he had little bargaining power. But in accordance with the 1976 Copyright Act, Willis has the opportunity to terminate that agreement and reclaim his portion of the rights to his classic material.
But publishers are not exactly eager to relinquish these rights if they can find a legal way around it, particularly if it’s a catalog of songs as enduringly popular (and profitable) as Willis’s. This ruling is the first time the termination statute has come before the courts, and as such, it’s the first time the statute has been interpreted in a manner that sets precedent.
As Willis’ lawyer told the New York Times:
The significance of the ruling is that one author who gives a grant to a publishing company has the right to recapture the copyright interest he created 35 years ago regardless of what other co-authors do or don’t do, and that the author gets back that which he created regardless of the income stream he agreed to over 35 years ago.”
This is good news for artists seeking “another bite at the apple,” but it’s safe to expect this decision to be appealed, so the issue of joint authorship may not be settled. It’s also safe to expect more court battles to come, as other aspects of the statute have yet to be formally adjudicated. In particular, the claim that that sound recordings should be considered “works for hire” was due to be argued in this case, but the publishers dropped the issue, leaving it unresolved for now. And that’s just on the publishing side — sound copyrights (or “masters” as they’re commonly known) will likely face greater works for hire scrutiny.
Termination rights remain one of the most brain-meltingly complicated aspects of copyright, which is why we put together this fact sheet. Have at!