Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

In Defense of Art

In Defense of Art is the official blog of Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts

Copyright and “termination of transfer” win for Victor Willis, the Cop from the Village People and co-writer of “Y.M.C.A.”

by Sean Clancy esq. with assistance from Lydia Loren

A San Diego jury in federal court recently gave a big win to singer/songwriter Victor Willis of the Village People, increasing Willis’ share of royalties for multiple compositions, including the hit song “Y.M.C.A.”

The fight began nearly four years ago with Willis exercising his “termination of transfer” rights under the Copyright Act. Pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §203, an artist may terminate a transfer of copyright any time “during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant,” by informing the grantee, the copyright office, and following other formalities under the statute. It’s important to note that the right does not apply to works made for hire. Where it does apply, the artist’s termination right may be exercised regardless of an agreement to the contrary—even if the contract says “no take-backs!” The termination right granted to creators of copyrighted works was intended to give artists a second chance at negotiating the terms of a deal since they often sign deals before realizing their work’s commercial value. The termination right also allows an artist to strike a licensing deal with someone else.

Willis had signed over his copyright in the late 1970’s and regretted it so 35 years later he sought to reclaim his share of copyright ownership. However, an issue about the song’s authorship complicated his case. Some of the copyright registrations for the songs listed three writers, including Henri Belolo. Willis, however, argued that Belolo’s credit on the registration was wrong. This authorship question meant the difference between Willis reclaiming 50% ownership or just one third.

With its verdict, the jury took credit away from Belolo and increased Willis’ percentage ownership to 50%. If the verdict stands, Willis will enjoy a resulting bump in royalty income in addition to various licensing rights as co-owner.

This is one of the first and highest profile of many potential suits relating to termination of transfers under §203 of the Copyright Act. As a result of the termination right’s 35-year timeline, which applies to agreements made after 1977, we are just now beginning to see artists reclaim their works like this. With some groundwork established by this case, we can expect similar cases to follow.

This case also shows how authorship credits, shares of royalties, and other copyright issues can be implicated and rearranged during the termination of transfer process. Furthermore, because artists can potentially terminate transfers regardless of contrary agreements, §203 presents powerful leverage.

Willis’ opponent have indicated that they will appeal the verdict.

To learn more about how to terminate an earlier assignment of your copyright check out these resources…

For authors, the Authors Alliance provides Understanding Rights Reversion: When, Why, & How to Regain Copyright and Make Your Book More Available, a guide that arms authors with the information and strategies they need to revive their books.

For songwriters, the Future of Music Coalition provides The Right to Terminate: a Musicians’ Guide to Copyright Reversion, a “second bite at the apple” for musicians and songwriters.