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As Victor Willis, the original lead singer of the Village People, fights to regain control over his share of the copyright credit for 32 of the band’s songs, including the hit “Y.M.C.A.,” the music publisher Can’t Stop Music has withdrawn an important claim that the songs were works made for hire. The development came at an oral hearing on Tuesday in a closely-watched case that will determine the validity of Willis’ termination notices to the music publisher.
A judge will soon rule on whether to dismiss the music publisher’s lawsuit against Willis. The plaintiff is seeking a declaration in California federal court that songs created by multiple authors can’t be terminated by a single co-author.
But the plaintiff has dropped one of its claims — that the songs were works made for hire. This is an important distinction because if Willis was deemed to be the music publisher’s employee at the time of creation, under U.S. copyright law, he wouldn’t technically be the “author.”
Willis’ side is presenting the development as a big victory.
“The work for hire issue is expected to be the main argument by record companies and publishers against artists seeking to terminate,” says Linda Smythe, a publicist for Willis. “Essentially, the publishers had no choice but to cave on the issue of work for hire and they did so by dismissing that part of their claim.”
Robert Besser, attorney for the publisher, disputes that it was a “cave.”
“The reason for the withdrawal is that all of the original copyright filings answered ‘no’ to the question on the form that asked whether it was a work for hire,” he says. “But for that fact, we would have proved the work for hire allegations.”
The development might represent a victory for Willis, but perhaps not for the many other musicians who are attempting their own terminations.
For example, Michael Robertson, founder of MP3Tunes, facing its own legal battles, recently posted a list of musicians whose sound recordings appear to have been registered as works for hire by EMI. The artists include big names like Beastie Boys, Frank Sinatra, Pink Floyd, and R.E.M.
In other words, if it’s true that Can’t Stop withdrew the “work for hire” argument merely because of the details of the copyright registration, it could be a somewhat unique instance and wouldn’t preclude other publishers and record labels from making the argument in future cases.
Still, it’s good news for Willis and he could find out soon whether a judge will reject the publisher’s other arguments.
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