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Village People singer-songwriter Victor Willis has finally prevailed in reclaiming 50 percent of the copyright to many of the group’s songs, including “Y.M.C.A.”
For four years, Willis has been in a legal battle that has been closely followed in the music industry because it dealt with a portion of copyright law that allows authors to terminate copyright grants. When Congress amended copyright to permit this in the mid-1970s, it was done with an eye on giving authors 35 years hence the benefit of the latter portions of a newly extended term. Ever since, many studios, record companies and publishers have braced themselves for the eventual fallout.
As songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Tom Petty sent termination notices, Willis provoked a battle with implications. In May 2012, Willis won a major ruling when he got a judge to decide he didn’t need his co-authors onboard to effectuate a termination notice.
Nevertheless, the case continued because it wasn’t certain whether he was reclaiming a 33 percent share as one of three writers to 24 Village People songs or whether he was reclaiming a 50 percent share as one of two writers along with Jacques Morali.
The third possible writer was Henri Belolo, who the music companies Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions contended had authored songs originally in French before being adapted by Willis.
Belolo is credited on copyright registration certificates, which Willis contended was really a fraud.
Before California federal judge Barry Ted Moskowitz, the dispute went to a jury trial that took almost a month. Willis recounted exactly how he created “Y.M.C.A.” and other songs.
The jury gave Willis the win. According to his attorney, Brian Caplan, the jury ruled that Belolo’s name should be removed from 13 songs and that Willis wasn’t time-barred to bring claims seeking declaratory relief. Thanks to the decision, Willis is now due for a royalty bump up from a 12 to a 20 percent rate. As a co-owner, he also enjoys licensing rights on the songs.
The publisher was represented by Stewart Levy, who notes that Belolo has affirmed co-authorship of “In the Navy” and “Go West,” among other songs. The attorney promises an appeal.
Willis commented, “I’m excited that the world will now know that ‘Y.M.C.A.’ is all-American, not French.”
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