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Last May, Victor Willis, a former member of The Village People, scored a major legal victory in federal court in California. Judge Barry Moskowitz held that record labels could not block Willis from exercising his “termination rights” under the Copyright Act of 1978. A few weeks ago, despite claims from record label attorneys that the legal battle was not finished and an appeal would be pending, Willis declared victory in his fight against the labels.
Termination rights flow from a provision in the Copyright Act that allows artists to reclaim a copyright previously assigned to another party 35 years after the work was created. Since it was enacted 35 years ago, this is the first year works have become eligible, and the provision’s scope has long been an open question in the music industry. Many artists have been following Willis’ legal battle as they consider submittiy their own termination notices.
While declaring victory may seem premature given the possibility of appeal, Judge Moskowitz’s strong opinion in favor of Willis suggests that the law is solidly on his side. However, a legitimate challenge that Willis will face in the near future is whether he is entitled to a 33% share of the rights or a 50% share. Willis had a writing partner named Jacques Morali who passed away in 1991, and another man named Henri Belolo is listed as a co-writer on many songs, including the well-known “YMCA.” Both Belolo and Morali’s estates will likely assert their rights to the newly liberated songs.
It is unclear what Willis’s plans are for his new catalog of 33 songs. According to the New York Times, Willis has considered prohibiting the current lineup of The Village People, which remarkably still exists and is currently touring, from performing some of the band’s classic hits.
While The Village People may be scared of not being able to perform “In the Navy” in the near future, the music industry is petrified. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Eagles, and Billy Joel have either filed or plan to file for termination rights. If The Village People can win this early round against the music industry, it seems even more likely that those more established artists will reclaim the rights to songs they recorded many decades ago.
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