Judge in 'Y.M.C.A.' Copyright Termination Battle Asks to Hear More Information

Lawsuit could impact whether other famous musicians are able to take back copyright grants to publishers and labels.
Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge is taking the unusual step of allowing an amicus brief to be considered at the early stages of litigation that will determine 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."

After Victor Willis filed paperwork to regain control over his share of copyright, Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions, the two companies that administer publishing rights to the group's songs, filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration that he couldn't exploit a provision of the U.S. Copyright Act that allows termination of copyright grants.

Artists are allowed to terminate a copyright grant 35 years after first publishing, and since the "termination" provision went into effect in 1978, it's expected that many musicians will attempt to wrest back control of their works from publishers and record labels. Some, including the creators of hits "Funkytown" and "Eye of the Tiger," already have. Many in the music industry are watching the Willis battle closely.

With that backdrop, last month the Songwriters Guild of America asked for permission to submit an amicus brief that argued that recipients of termination notices shouldn't be "permitted to engage in protracted litigation and legal gamesmanship to block the effect of clearly meritorious termination claims by creators."

The defendants vigorously opposed the move, saying it "added nothing new" to Willis' arguments and quoting judge and legal scholar Richard Posner, who described amicus briefs as an "abuse."

U.S. District Court Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz isn't convinced by those arguments, finding that the SGA's participation might be useful given that this dispute is "one of the first cases regarding termination of grants of copyright to be litigated in federal court."

The judge seems to know he's presiding over an important case here.

The first issue to be decided in this suit is whether rights to a song created by multiple authors can be terminated by a single co-author. The publishers believe Willis can't terminate songs without the cooperation of other members of the Village People (some of whom might have operated under a work-for-hire arrangement), but Willis' attorney believes there's a difference between authorship and the "grant" of authorship.

"The arguments Willis's attorneys raise are innovative because everyone had been operating under the assumption that it was a majority of the authors of the work for so long," says Mark Bledsoe, a third party legal observer at Bradley Arant. "However, the statutory language clearly does not contemplate that a majority of the authors of the work are needed for termination, only a majority of the authors that participated in whichever grant is being terminated."

The National Music Publishers' Association says it has no plans to file its own amicus brief in the lawsuit.

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