Score a copyright victory for the Village People. After 35 years Village Person Victor Willis (the policeman, in case you’re wondering) is gaining control of his share of the copyright to Village People disco hits, including “YMCA,” “In the Navy” and “Go West.” Willis was credited originally as one of the three writers of the songs.
Willis, the onetime lead singer of the Village People, was able to recapture his rights due to a little known provision of copyright right called “termination” that went into effect in 1978. According to the New York Times: That law granted musicians and songwriters what are known as “termination rights,” allowing them to recover control of their creations after 35 years, even if they had originally signed away their rights.
Willis’ claim was not unexpectedly opposed by the companies that had retained rights to the songs. Recording companies had argued that the songs belonged to them in perpetuity because they were “works for hire.” The argument, essentially, was that the musicians were their employees. That argument was ultimately withdrawn.
The Village People tunes are the first hits to be eligible for “termination.” (Remember the law was enacted in 1978 and the rights revert back after 35 years). Time will tell what happens to later songs.
As we have often written, copyright is all about control. “I learned over the years that there are some awesome powers associated with copyright ownership,” Mr. Willis said. “You can stop somebody from performing your music if you want to, and I might object to some usages.” He could even prevent the current incarnation of the Village People from singing the songs. Note to Mr. Willis: We hope that the tradition of dancing to YMCA by the grounds crew at Yankee Stadium is permitted to continue.
As one might expect, there will be appeals and some wrangling continues over what percentage of the royalties Mr. Willis is entitled to.