November 17, 2011 11:45pm PT by Eriq Gardner
Songwriters Guild of America Jumps Into 'Y.M.C.A.' Copyright Termination Fray (Exclusive)
The Songwriters Guild of America is making a bold move to insert itself in the early stages of a case that could shake up the music industry. The SGA has asked a court for permission to submit an amicus brief in the dispute over whether the original lead singer of the Village People has a right to terminate copyright grants on 32 songs, including the big hit, "Y.M.C.A."
It's not unusual for lobbying associations, trade organizations, and labor groups to submit amicus briefs. In fact, friend-of-the-court filings have been flourishing of late. But it's rather extraordinary to see one being made just three months after the original lawsuit was filed, before a judge has even had the opportunity to make a ruling on any preliminary motion in the case.
On Monday, the SGA submitted a motion for leave to file an amicus brief.
U.S. District Court Judge Barry Moskowitz has scheduled a hearing to consider the request for December 16th.
But in advance of a decision, THR has obtained a copy of the pending brief that talks about the huge stakes of this lawsuit and why the judge should resist tricky legal maneuvers. According to the brief, written by Steven Chasin at Baker & McKenzie:
"It is a simple fact that authors of copyrighted works have limited financial -- and therefore limited legal -- resources. If the recipients of the many termination claims that will be filed in the coming years -- all of which possess superior economic resources -- are permitted to engage in protracted litigation and legal gamesmanship to block the effect of clearly meritorious termination claims by creators, then songwriters, authors and other creators will run the constant risk of being drained of the resources necessary to persevere in the litigation process, and authors' rights under Section 203 of the Copyright Act will have been chilled to the point of evisceration."
In 1976, the U.S. Congress adjusted copyright laws, extending the copyright term, but giving authors the potential benefits of the latter stages of this term by sending out terminations 35 years after first publishing. Since the legislation went into effect in 1978, it means that 2013 is the first year when musicians such as Village People ex-singer Victor Willis can effectuate a termination.
In the meantime, because artists have a deadline for sending out termination notices, publishers and record labels are likely to be flooded with them.
The recipients of these notices have various legal defenses lined up, including arguing that songs are "works made for hire" or that the termination provision doesn't cover compilations.
Right now, in the Willis lawsuit, the parties are debating whether rights to a song created by multiple authors can be terminated by a single co-author. In this particular instance, there were several co-writers to songs by the Village People, as the group had many members, but if the publisher gets a favorable decision, future defendants (like possibly, record labels) may argue that producers or sound engineers also deserve to be considered "co-authors" for the purposes of copyright.
The SGA says that attempts to stymie the terminators based on the majority-rules argument "appears vexatious" and that Congress intended to allow individual authors to be able to collaborate on a joint work and still retain individual rights to a share of the work.
A decision on that aspect of this case is coming shortly, with a hearing scheduled for tomorrow.
In the meantime, here's SGA's full amicus brief: