Post co-authored by FMC policy intern Bryce Cashman
Add another point to the artist rights scoreboard: Village People songwriter/performer Victor Willis has succeeded in reclaiming a 50 percent stake the ownership of classic songs that he co-wrote, including the indelible disco smash “Y.M.C.A.”
This protracted legal dispute began in 2011, when Willis exercised his “termination of transfer” right to reclaim musical compositions previously assigned his publisher. This longstanding right is a part of American copyright law, established to offer all authors a “second bite at the apple” with respect to their creations. Under the 1976 Copyright Act, following a period of 35 years, an author (incuding songwriters and recording artists) can file with the US Copyright Office and the current copyright owner signifying their intent to reclaim their work. (Under the prior 1909 Act, the term was 56 years.)
As we explain in our Musicians’ Guide to Copyright Reversion, this right is crucial for creators who may have lacked leverage at the time they first signed a deal. An artist like Willis, whose songs have only grown in stature over the decades, now has an opportunity to directly participate in the value generated by these works. But there are other reasons an artist or their heirs may want to reclaim older copyrights, including the basic desire to own their creative expression. Of course, some artists will simply use the possibility of termination to renegotiate with a label or publisher on more favorable terms. And that’s great, too.
A key aspect of Willis’ latest claim involved the question of exactly what percentage of authorship he is entitled to among the 24 works eligible for termination. Initially, his share was approximately one third, with a third belonging to his Village People co-writer Jacques Morali and another third belonging to French record producer Henri Belolo. In court, Willis argued that Belolo played no part in the creation these songs, while Can’t Stop Productions maintained that Belolo had in fact written French lyrics prior to Willis’ adaptations.
Earlier this month, a jury reached a verdict determining that Willis and Morali were the sole authors of 13 of the disputed works including “Y.M.C.A.,” and that Willis was entitled to 50 percent rather than the 33 percent asserted by Can’t Stop Productions (who had previously—and unsuccessfully— attempted to bar Willis from exercising his termination rights). For this Village Person, the outcome is potentially worth millions. The decision has increased Willis’s royalty rate from 12 to 20 percent, and with greater control over more works, he is in the position to enjoy the benefits of licensing these songs for future uses. Additionally, in Willis’s case, Judge Barry Ted Moskovitz ruled that an author does not need the consent of his co-authors to execute a termination of transfer notice. This is a big deal for co-writers, who number many in the music industry.
As previously mentioned, the mere fact that an artist can reclaim their works gives them some advantages that they didn’t have when they first signed. Take, for example, the recent situation with Prince and Warner Brothers Records, in which the Purple One used his termination rights as leverage to strike a more flexible—and lucrative—deal with his label.
For older artists like Willis, the termination right allows them to enjoy the fruits of their work without necessarily having to hit the road in their advancing years. An artist who transferred their copyrights 35 years ago may now be in a position to reclaim ownership, licensing directly to whomever they choose, or re-signing with the same or different label or publisher. Today’s Internet-enabled music economy gives creators many more paths to audiences than in years past, which means that owning valuable copyrights can not only keep the music alive, but also drive revenue directly back to the artist.
But it’s important to remember that termination isn’t automatic. There are specific steps that an author has to take to be able to exercise their rights under law; our fact sheet lays out the details. And every case may be different, so there is a strong likelihood that we’ll see future litigation on this issue. But for now, Willis and his fellow songwriters should feel good about how the courts have interpreted this important, pro-artist provision.