Odd Legal Question du Jour: Was 'Y.M.C.A.' Originally French?

Victor Willis
Clinton Wallace/Globe Photos/ZumaPress.com/Newscom

Willis, here in 2008, left the Village People in 1980.

In May, original Village People singer Victor Willis won a big victory by getting a judge to swat away two music publishers that challenged his ability to terminate a copyright grant on hit songs, including the monster hit "Y.M.C.A."

Many other musicians including Journey, Devo and Billy Joel are attempting to similarly exploit a once obscure provision of the Copyright Act adopted in the late 1970s to allow authors to reclaim rights during a copyright term's late stage. Hence, Willis' battle with Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions has been closely watched as one of the few termination fights in the music industry to end up in court so far.

But now that Willis has succeeded in getting a judge to declare that, even though there were other authors on the songs, Willis could unilaterally terminate his copyright grant, there is still the dirty business of figuring out what that means: Exactly what is he entitled to receive?

Willis' claim on the songs isn't free of complications.

On 33 music compositions, there were several co-authors listed on copyright registrations. For "Y.M.C.A," there were three.

Willis claims that one of the co-authors, Henri Belolo, didn't contribute to the authorship or lyrics of 24 of the compositions. Willis says he's entitled to a 50 percent share.

But the publishers dispute this. They claim that between 1977 and 1979, they hired Willis to translate lyrics and create new lyrics on certain compositions that were owned and published in France by Scorpio. The agreement they had with Willis at the time entitled him to a 12-20 percent of Can't Stop's gross receipts and say that in the case of Willis being just one of three authors, he should only get a 33 percent share.

Willis' side estimates a loss of $30 million from the claim that his iconic songs are adapted from original French songs.

This week, a judge had to decide whether or not to allow Willis to proceed on his counterclaim that Belolo wasn't a co-author, which would pave the way for Willis being able to recapture a 50 percent interest.

The ruling deals with the statute of limitations in a rather quirky way -- when the original copyright registrations were made three decades ago, Willis never objected. But Willis and the Songwriters Guild of America argued against the practicality of making authors litigate up front when they have neither the means nor incentive to challenge a copyright registration.

In his ruling, which can be read in full here, Judge Barry Moskowitz splits the difference.

On one hand, the judge isn't willing to waive the requirement that a songwriter file an objection in a timely fashion.

"At the time Willis granted his copyright interests in the disputed works to Can't Stop, the Copyright Act of 1976 was already enacted," writes the judge. "Therefore, Willis knew from the very beginning that he would have the opportunity to terminate his grants and could have litigated any ownership disputes of which he was aware to preserve his rights."

And although that might be unfair, the judge says "it is Congress's job, not this Court's, to amend the law" and that "policy arguments can also be made for avoiding the filing of lawsuits decades after the creation of work, when witnesses may be dead, documents lost and memories faded."

So Willis had an obligation to file a lawsuit within three years of being on notice of a problem, but the next question is: Did he have such notice?

Judge Moskowitz later writes, "The Court is not convinced that the mere filing of copyright registrations listing Belolo as an author and the release of records bearing labels identifying Belolo as an author rise to the level of 'plain and express repudiation' communicated to Willis. At the very least, plaintiffs should have to show Willis had actual notice of the content of the registrations and the record labels. What Willis knew and when he knew it are factual issues that cannot be determined at this time."

So the case goes forward without any firm ruling on the question of what will ultimately happen for Willis, but the opinion also serves as another signal that fights over termination are likely to be heavily litigated.

As for whether Village People songs were actually originally French, Willis has something to say about that.

He remarks, "I will now have an opportunity to have all the facts come out which will establish the true American authorship of all my songs, and I can assure you there was no Y.M.C.A. in France when I wrote the lyrics in 1978."

Email: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner