Judge rules in favor of Victor Willis in dispute over publishing control

Village People lead singer Victor Willis has won a key ruling in his effort to win back his share of the rights to “YMCA,” “In the Navy,” “Go West” and dozens of other songs, as a federal judge dismissed an effort by the publisher of the music to retain control of the music.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz on Monday has potentially huge implications for the music business, as a key provision of the Copyright Act allows authors of music from the late 1970s to start reclaiming rights they granted to their works starting in 2013. The intent of the “rights termination” provision was to allow artists to share in the value of their works, given that they may not have the leverage earlier in their careers to retain copyrights and licenses.

Scorpio Music and publisher Can’t Stop Productions, to which Willis transferred his copyright interests in the late 1970s in exchange for royalties, claimed that Willis could not recapture his share of the songs, as he was not the sole author to the music. Instead, the publishers claimed that a majority of the authors must seek to terminate the rights, not just Willis.

But Moskowitz held that “a joint author who separately transfers his copyright interest may unilaterally terminate that grant.”

The case may be just a prelude to a bonanza of disputes over the ownership of hit songs from more than a generation ago. The “rights termination” provision allows authors to start reclaiming their ownership in works 35 years after they granted rights to their music, with the calendar set on or after Jan. 1, 1978. They still have to go through a rather complicated legal process to do so, like serve advance termination notices on current copyright holders within a window of five years. Ineligible are authors of works that were written “for hire.”

Moskowitz also rejected the publishers’ efforts to limit Willis’ share of the music to the royality percentages he has received through the years. According to the suit, Willis has received 12% to 20%, depending on the composition. But in the case of “YMCA,” he is one of three authors listed on the copyright resigtration, giving him a 1/3 interest in the copyright. Willis’ attorney Henri Belolo argued during oral argument in the case that his client actually should have half ownership in the song, as one of the authors listed in the registration “was not actually a joint author.”

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