You Can’t Stop the Music, but you can stop the copyright!

It’s a well-known story. Chain-smoking French composer Jacques Morali had a dream for a concept disco group and placed an ad in a magazine reading “Macho Types Wanted: Must Dance And Have A Moustache”. The result can be seen below.

VillagePeople1978.jpg

(The original members of the disco group Village People in 1978. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Among the crew assembled by Morali and Henri Belolo, was Victor Willis, who became the lead singer and (partial) songwriter for the Village People. As Morali could not speak English, Willis wrote the lyrics for a number of classic Village People hits.

At the time, copyright in the songs Willis co-wrote was assigned to Can’t Stop Productions, owned by Morali and Belolo. Now, using a little-known provision in US copyright law, Willis is seeking that his rights in the Village People songs be returned to him. In 1978 US artists were granted “termination rights”, which would allow them to regain control of their work after 35 years, as long as they apply 2 years in advance. This law will start to have effect in 2013 as 35 years will have passed since the law was made, allowing artists whose work was created after 1978 to reclaim copyright in the songs.

Can’t Stop Productions isn’t quite ready for the music to cease. It has asked an LA court to deny Willis’ attempt to exercise his termination rights on the following grounds:

  • Can’t Stop Productions (and related company Scorpio Music) had employed Willis as a “writer for hire” and therefore, as an employee, copyright in his creations vested with Can’t Stop Productions; and
  • The Village People songs were “joint compositions” with Morali and other writers, and the other writers must agree to exercise termination rights for the application to have effect.

It is unclear how the court will rule upon these issues, but the result is one that will have great impact on the music industry, aging rockers, and members of svengali-created and operated bands.

Sadly, Jacques Morali isn’t around to

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comment on this (he died in 1991), but I’m sure he would agree with the sentiments expressed by Willis in my favourite Village People song.

“Music in our walk, music when we talk.
It’s really something magic, to lose it would be tragic.
Can’t you feel the sound movin’ through the ground?
Music makes the world go around.”

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