Victor Willis, the original lead singer in the six-man group the Village People, won a landmark copyright case Wednesday that will give him partial ownership of dozens of the disco band's songs.
Willis regained the rights to iconic hits like 'YMCA' and 'Macho Man' after California Chief Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz terminated a publishing deal made between Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions and the band decades ago.
Last year Willis sought to regain in his right to 33 of the group's songs. The two companies took Willis to court hoping for a judgment that would not allow the former member to regain rights to his songs.
Moskowitz granted Willis' motion to dismiss, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
To say this decision will send shock waves through the record industry [as] artists [are] seeking to take back their copyrights is an understatement, said Willis' publicist, Linda Smythe to the Hollywood Reporter.
The amendments made to the U.S. Copyright Act in 1978 made it all possible. It gave musicians the right to terminate copyright grants to publishers and record labels 35 years later as long as they give notice to the proper channels. Willis used this law, which goes into effect next year, to reclaim rights to the Village People's songs, reported the Guardian.
Congress decided that it wanted to make certain that particularly artists and particularly those who'd entered into agreements very early on in their careers, where perhaps they didn't have very much bargaining power or where in the future they might not have much bargaining power, would be in a position from the later part of the copyright period to actually get some benefit, Ian McDonald, special counsel for copyright at Simpsons Solicitors said in a radio interview with ABC's PM.
Artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, and Tom Petty have sent in notices to terminate their contracts as well.
Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions argued in court that Willis should not be allowed to terminate the contract because the songs were made by several artists, not just Willis. The companies said all members of the band would have to terminate the contract, not just Willis.
But Moskowitz rejected that argument.
The Court concludes that a joint author who separately transfers his copyright interest may unilaterally terminate the grant, he wrote in the judge's opinion according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Willis will also get a larger share of royalties then the original contract allotted. Under the original contract he was given 12 -20 percent of the songwriting royalties. However for the YMCA track, he would receive 33 percent of the royalties because he is one of three original authors of the song. Willis is denying that one of YMCA's credited songwriters even contributed to the song, reported the Guardian.
Stewart L. Levy, a lawyer for the publishing company, told the New York Times that the court decision is not a 'big victory' for Mr. Willis.
We're disappointed, although we don't think it's earth-shattering, said Levy, an attorney with Eisenberg Tanchum & Levy, who represented Scorpio to Bloomberg News. The big issue is what he gets back.
We predict when such a determination is made there will be little change from the current status that exists today, he said to the New York Times. The case, in short, is far from over.
Willis said he is pleased with the judge's decision.
I'm extremely pleased with the court's determination, Mr. Willis said in a written statement according to the New York Times. And I look forward to controlling my copyright interests in 2013, as the law provides.
Willis was with the Village People from 1977 to 1980. He wrote 33 of the band's songs.