Y.M.C.A. -- Spells Copyright Termination

Victor Willis, the former lead singer of the group The Village People and the songwriter or co-writer on 32 songs performed by the group, is in a legal battle with the music publishers that currently own the copyright in the songsto terminate the agreements granting ownership of the song copyrights to the music publisher. Pursuant to section 203 of the 1976 Copyright Act authors (or certain heirs) may terminatecopyright assignments and reclaim copyrights 35 years after the work is first published.  There are strict statutory guidelines that must be followed and they are outlined in more detail in the article here.

The music publishers that own the songs made famous by The Village People have asked a judge to find the songs were created by Willis as "works for hire."  Under the Copyright Act works created as "works for hire" are not subject to the termination provision because the employer, in this case the music publisher, would by law be deemed the author of the work.  But, songs are not specifically enumerated as a category of "works for hire," so the music publishers would be required to prove that Willis was their employee in order for this argument to fly.

While the article from The Hollywood Reporter Esq. blog and The New York Times lay out the facts and the basics on termination law, they do not mention what might be the music publisher's best argument to defeat the claim:  17 USC § 203(A)(1) requires that when a work, in this fact pattern a song, has more than one author, a termination of the grant may be effected by a majority of the authors who executed the original agreement conveying the rights to the copyright.  "Y.M.C.A" has four songwriters.  Three of the four songwriters must properly serve notice on the music publisher to meet the first hurdle in even attempting to terminate the grant. While the other co-writers may have filed their termination notices, this fact does not seem to be surfacing in the news reports.

Music lawyer Tamera Bennett and film lawyer Gordon Firemark discuss this case in detail in Episode 23 of the Entertainment Law Update Podcast.

UPDATE - The court clarified that the "majority of authors" requirement applies to each individual agreement conveying rights in the copyright. So, if there are three songwriters and each of them signs an individual agreement assigning their individual copyright share to a song, you don't need two to make a majority. Just the one songwriter that signed his one agreement, can then terminate his own individual grant.