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Starting a process that might completely shake-up copyright law in the next few years, Mr. Victor Willis, the former lead singer of the Village People, is filing to regain control and ownership of several of the group’s earliest songs, including the renowned song ‘Y.M.C.A.’
Thirty-five years ago, when Congress re-wrote the copyright laws expanding the copyright term length, they included a small loophole that’s about to become a major source of litigation. The loophole was originally intended to allow artists to regain control of their work if they were forced to give up the copyrights to their songs to major studios due to unequal bargaining power. Essentially, if a song is published after 1978, the author of the song has the right to apply to terminate and assume the copyright 35 years after publication, if they do so two years before the copyright term ends. For those of us who aren’t very good at math, the earliest this can occur is 35 years after 1978 for any work published that year, or 2013, while the filing can occur two years prior to that; in other words, now. Hence, Mr. Willis’ law suit.
Not surprisingly, the record companies who currently hold the copyrights are vigorously starting to fight back. One argument being floated around is that as a member of a group, Mr. Willis cannot exercise his rights unless all members or at least a majority want termination. Alternately, the record labels argue that he and the group are not the ‘writers’ of the songs but merely ‘workers for hire‘ that created the song within the scope of their employment. Therefore, the studios are the authors who create the group and then hire singers who write the songs only as employees under the studio. Of course, Mr. Willis’ basic counterargument, which is fairly persuasive, is that he wrote the song and so how exactly he is not the author?
As to the issue of joint-authorship, there’s an interesting argument as to what happens when there are two or multiple authors of a work, as in this case, where Mr. Willis is one of the primary songwriters but not the only one. Exactly how this works when it comes to termination is unclear, and how the copyright should be divided up between the studios and the writers claiming termination will be a challenge to the courts. However, the studios’ argument that the singers were merely “workers for hire” seems somewhat implausible, especially considering that the clear intent of the loophole was to protect singers from unequal bargaining positions. While the studios may have organized and directed the groups, it seems that there’s a clear disitnction between organization and creative production worthy of copyright.
In any case, this looks to quickly become a much bigger issue as artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, and the Eagles have works that will soon become available for copyright termination. In all likelihood, they too will attempt to exercise their right to termination, and this lawsuit will only be the beginning.
– Eddie Chadwick
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