Monday, September 16, 2013

It Takes a Village (People) to Restore a Copyright

Village People

Count United States District Court for the Southern District of California Chief Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz among the fans of former Village People lead vocalist Victor Willis.

 In a 10-page decision in Scorpio Music S.A. v. Willis (Case No. 11-cv-1557) earlier this month, Judge Moskowitz granted the Village People singer/songsmith's motion to dismiss the complaint by a French music publisher against Willis (he was the "Cowboy," readers--stay with us). During a six-year struggle to recoup an ownership interest in YMCA, In the Navy, Go West and 30 other songs that blared in discotheques three decades ago when the rocking "TUOL" staff still had sideburns, Willis in 2011 served a notice of termination rights on the plaintiff pursuant to a controversial 1978 provision of the U.S. Copyright Act [17 U.S.C. § 203].

Under Section 203, an author who serves notice under certain conditions to terminate the transfer or license of a copyright within a five-year period commencing after 35 years from the date the grant of copyright was executed may recover an ownership interest. Section 203 is applicable to the case because Willis penned the 33 songs in issue after 1978 (the group's signature song, Macho Man, was written before the 1978 Copyright provision took effect, and is not a part of the case).  The Court rejected the favored argument of record companies and music publishers that they, not the composers, own the copyrights in perpetuity because the songs are "works for hire" created by artists who  were employees of the companies.

Scorpio Music is appealing the adverse ruling. Before "Cowboy" Willis rides off into the sunset, he'll also have to deal with French record producer Henri Belolo, a purported co-writer of YMCA and other Village People hits, who is seeking a court determination of his ownership interest, according to an account in The New York Times.  Jacques Morali, who collaborated with Willis on cranking out Village People tunes, died in 1991. If the appellate court upholds the termination of rights, what percentage of revenues and interest Willis would recover would have to be determined.
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