Village People cop’s copyright win

As we posted on IP Whiteboard last year the original Policeman from the Village People, Victor Willis, was taking a stand in a Californian District Court to reclaim his copyright ownership in a number of the band’s songs. The decision was recently delivered in his favour.

Willis co-wrote many of the band’s biggest hits including “YMCA” and “Macho Man” and performed as the lead singer until 1980 when he finally laid down his badge. But Willis had signed an agreement assigning his copyright ownership in over 33 songs to the band’s publishing company Scorpio Music and its US affiliate Can’t Stop Productions. Under this agreement, Willis received 12 to 20 percent of the royalties for these songs. 

In 1977, however, the United States Congress amended the US Copyright Act permitting songwriters to terminate any copyright agreements with either a publisher or record label post-1977 after a period of 35 years.  The purpose of the amendments, as stated by US District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz in the case, is to “safeguard authors against un-remunerative transfers” and focus on “the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until it has been exploited”.

Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions sought to prevent Willis from reclaiming his ownership, arguing that he was simply a “writer for hire” and had not received permission for such legal action from his co-writers.  

While the “writer for hire” argument wasn’t eventually argued in court, Judge Moskowitz rejected the argument that Willis needed permission from his co-writers.  Judge Moskowitz allowed Willis to terminate his publishing agreement and subsequently awarded the disco diva a third of the copyright ownership in the 33 songs.  This represents a significant increase in the Willis’ revenue stream.

The case has sparked interest from the likes of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, creating a precedent for songwriters to reclaim their copyrights in the future. It has also opened up the possibility for songwriters to assign their rights under a better deal with a new record company. There has been no equivalent change to the Australian Copyright Act and, as such, the laws apply only in the United States.

The decision of the District Court can be read here.