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A Copyright Victory, 35 Years Later

Victor Willis is bottom center in this portrait of the original members of the Village People.
CBS Archive | Getty Images
Victor Willis is bottom center in this portrait of the original members of the Village People.

In the lucrative world of music copyright, it may be something of a watershed moment: on Friday, after six years of legal wrangling and decades after he wrote the lyrics to the hit song "YMCA," Victor Willis will gain control of his share of the copyright to that song and others he wrote when he was the lead singer of the 1970s disco group the Village People.

Mr. Willis, who dressed as a policeman during the group's heyday, was able to recapture those songs, thanks to a little-known provision of copyright legislation that went into effect in 1978. 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.

It is possible, maybe even likely, that other artists who also wrote or recorded songs in 1978 have, after invoking their termination rights, quietly signed new deals with record labels and song publishing companies. But Mr. Willis appears to be the first artist associated with a hit song from that era to announce publicly that he has used his termination rights to regain control of his work.

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"YMCA" is one of 33 songs whose copyright Mr. Willis was seeking to recover when he first went to court. Hits like "In the Navy" and "Go West" are part of that group, but another well-known song whose lyrics Mr. Willis wrote, "Macho Man," was excluded because it was written just before the 1978 law went into effect.

In a telephone interview from his home in Southern California, Mr. Willis said he has not yet decided how best to exploit the song catalog. "I've had lots of offers, from record and publishing companies, a lot of stuff, but I haven't made up my mind how it's going to be handled."

He added, however, that he is thinking of prohibiting the Village People — the band still exists and is touring this month and next, though with largely different members — from singing any of his songs, at least in the United States. Under American law, copyright holders have a right to control the performance of a work at any "place open to the public or at a place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances are gathered." This designation applies not only to concert halls, but also to arenas and ballparks like Yankee Stadium, where "YMCA" and other Village People songs are perennial favorites.

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"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." Song publishing and record companies have consistently opposed artists' efforts to invoke termination rights, which have the potential to affect a company's bottom line severely. They argue that, in many cases, songs and recordings belong to them in perpetuity, rather than to the artists, because they are "works for hire," created not by independent contractors but by artists who are, in essence, their employees.

That was initially one of the arguments invoked against Mr. Willis in Federal District Court in Los Angeles. "We hired this guy," Stewart L. Levy, a lawyer for the companies that controlled the Village People song catalog, said last year. "He was an employee. We gave them the material and a studio to record in and controlled what was recorded, where, what hours and what they did." Eventually, though, that argument was withdrawn. If the "work for hire" doctrine can't be made to apply to a prefab group like the Village People, it stands little chance of surviving a test against other artists who emerged in the 1970s and who always had a much greater degree of autonomy, like Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Billy Joel and Parliament-Funkadelic.

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That does not mean that the litigation over the Village People catalog is over, however. Though Mr. Willis's songwriting partner Jacques Morali died in 1991, a third name, that of the French record producer Henri Belolo, appears as a co-writer on "YMCA" and other songs, and the distribution of songwriting credits and revenues is now in court.

"The termination is going to occur," said Jonathan Ross, one of Mr. Willis's lawyers. "What is in dispute is how much he is getting back, one-half or one-third."

In an e-mail he sent from Europe, Mr. Levy challenged that interpretation. "Since an appeal of the court's decision permitting such reversion has yet to be taken, it is far from certain that Mr. Willis will, at the end of the day, ever gain control over any share of the copyrights in the disputed songs." As a result, he maintained, any "article on his recapture is, therefore, premature and misleading."

Mr. Willis had declined interview requests during earlier stages of the dispute, but said he decided to speak out now so as to alert other artists, both established and emerging, to protect their copyrights. He said it was only because his wife is a lawyer that he became aware of his termination rights.

"I'm hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on," he said. "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."

—By Larry Rohter, The New York Times