When the clock struck midnight on 13 September 2013, Victor Willis, original Policeman from the Village People, is said to have regained his copyright interest in many of the band’s hits, including YMCA.
To recap on our post from last year, Willis co-wrote many of the band’s biggest hits (who could forget In the Navy) and performed as the lead singer until 1980. Willis assigned his copyright ownership in over 33 songs to the band’s publishing company Scorpio Music and its US affiliate Can’t Stop Productions, in exchange for 12 to 20 percent of the royalties for these songs.
Willis sought to correct his error in January 2011 by serving a termination notice of his grants of copyright in 33 compositions written between 1977-1979. This Hot Cop cited Section 203(a) of the US Copyright Act (17 U.S.C. § 203) which permits songwriters to terminate any copyright agreements with either a publisher or record label post-1977 after a period of 35 years. As found here at Exhibit A, the date of termination is 35 years after publication of each copyright work.
The clause serves to correct unequal bargaining position of authors, who are unable to predict whether their music will be successful. Recalling the exuberance of his youth, New York Times quoted Willis as stating:
“When you’re young, you just want to get out there and aren’t really paying attention to what’s on paper. I never even read one contract they put in front of me, and that’s a big mistake”.
The transfer of rights back to this Macho Man was not without its fair share of Ups and Downs. In 2012, Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions sought a declaration that Willis’ exercise of rights to recapture his copyright was void, arguing that he was simply a “writer for hire” and therefore had no right, title or interest in the copyrights. Alternatively, Willis required permission of his co-writers.
The Court rejected this argument in May 2012, finding that Willis had granted his copyright interests in the compositions separately from his co-authors and could therefore unilaterally terminate the grants.
Today, the question of royalties remains at issue (according to Scorpio’s lawyers, expect an appeal against the decision upholding validity of termination). As one of three artists, Scorpio argues that Willis is entitled to a maximum of 33.3%, as he is one of three artists given writing credits. However, Willis contends that Henri Belolo, one of the three people included in credits and receiving royalties, was not an author of 24 of the 33 songs. For those 24 songs, Willis’ seeks a share of 50%.
Willis’ challenge to Belolo’s interest turns on 17 U.S.C. § 507(b), stating: “No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of this title unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.” The timeliness of Willis’s claim that Belolo is not a co-author of the disputed works (and that Willis is therefore a 50% owner of the copyrights) depends on when Willis’s claim accrued. In March 2013, the Court indicated that the three year window will be taken to commence from when Willis was informed, in plain and express language, that his claim to 50% share in the copyright works was repudiated. So when did this occur?
Willis reasoned that his right to a 50% ownership interest in the disputed works did not vest until he served the termination notice in 2011. Scorpio argued that the clock started ticking from registration of the copyrights and printing of the original vinyl labels for the Village People’s celebrated albums, showing Belolo as an author. The Court disagreed with both sides, finding that when co-ownership or sole ownership claims are raised in the context of the termination of grants, § 507(b) operates as it normally does and bars claims brought more than three years after plain and express repudiation of the ownership claim. The registration of copyright was not necessarily “plain and express repudiation” of Willis’ interest as required by law, unless he was fully aware and had actual notice of their content.