U.S. News

A Village Person Tests the Copyright Law

Larry Rother|The New York Times
The Village People perform on stage at the taping of the American Bandstand.
M. Caulfield | WireImage | Getty Images

The prefab, gaudily costumed 1970s group the Village People and its big hit “Y.M.C.A.” are enduring symbols of the disco era. But now this campy and eternally popular song has become the centerpiece of what could be a significant test of copyright law.

Victor Willis, the original lead singer of the group, filed papers this year to regain control in 2013 over his share of “Y.M.C.A.,” whose lyrics he wrote, under a copyright provision that returns ownership of creative works to recording artists and songwriters after 35 years. His claim to “Y.M.C.A.” and 32 other Village People compositions, however, is being contested by two companies that administer publishing rights to the songs.

The companies, Scorpio Music, a French business, and Can’t Stop Productions, one of its American affiliates, do not deny that Mr. Willis, who dressed as a police or naval officer in the group’s live performances, is one of the writers of several of the songs, which have made many millions of dollars. But they have asked a court in Los Angeles to deny his attempt to exercise what are known as “termination rights,” arguing, among other things, that the two companies “employed defendant Willis as a writer for hire, and he therefore has no rights” to any share of ownership of the songs.

“This is going to be an important case because they claim my client was a worker for hire,” said Mr. Willis’s lead lawyer, Brian D. Caplan of the New York firm Caplan & Ross. “We are quite confident there will not be finding of work for hire, and that the rationale of such a decision will have implications for many other cases.”

Lawyers for the two companies, however, dispute the facts and significance of the case and have asked a court to declare Mr. Willis’s filing “void and of no force.” They say his situation has nothing in common with those of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, the Eagles and other pop stars of the same era, some of whom are beginning to invoke termination rights on their recordings or compositions.

“This is totally different, and outside the scope of these termination rights issues,” said Stewart L. Levy, of the New York firm Eisenberg Tanchum & Levy, who is representing the publishing companies. “The Village People were a concept group, created by my clients, who picked the people and the costumes. It was probably no different than the Monkees when they started. We hired this guy. 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.”

In 1976 Congress revised copyright law, inserting a provision that allows musicians and songwriters to regain control of work initially registered with the United States Copyright Office after Jan. 1, 1978. Artists must file termination notices at least two years before the date they want to recoup their work, and once a song or recording qualifies for termination, its authors have five years in which to file a claim; if they fail to act in that time, their right to reclaim the work lapses.

Mr. Levy said that Mr. Willis, now 58, also does not qualify for termination rights because he is only one of several creators of a “joint composition,” and that a majority of the writers must want termination for the claim to take effect. He also said that in some cases Mr. Willis was merely a translator or “adapter of French songs” that are not subject to American law and that were originally written by his clients.

“Victor Willis does not speak French, so he could not have translated anything,” Mr. Caplan said in response. “And I dare you to go to Paris and find a Y.M.C.A.”

Of the 33 songs that Mr. Willis is seeking to reclaim, the most valuable is clearly “Y.M.C.A.” One of the best-known compositions of the disco era, the song is even today frequently found on film and television soundtracks, is played in baseball and football stadiums, is available as a telephone ringtone and is even used in Xbox games.

And what happened to the author?

Under copyright law, termination rights can be invoked on both sound recordings and authorship of songs. But Mr. Willis’s lawyers and advisers said they had chosen to focus on the song publishing aspect because the issues are “clearer and cleaner,” as Mr. Caplan put it, and because it promises to be more lucrative.

The New York Yankees grounds crew dances to the YMCA during the game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium.
Getty Images

Linda Smythe, a spokeswoman for Mr. Willis, said that royalties from Village People recordings currently earned him from $30,000 to $40,000 a year, a figure that she said would “triple or quadruple” if he succeeded in gaining rights to recordings made when he was a member of the group.

On the other hand, the song “Y.M.C.A.” alone, she said, earns “upwards of $1 million a year” because of its widespread use, making authorship rights a much more important issue.

Mr. Willis’s second-most-popular song, “Macho Man,” is not eligible for termination because it was registered with the copyright office late in 1977, just before the change in law went into effect. But “In the Navy” and “Go West,” which at the moment is being featured in the hit Broadway show “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” together earn another million dollars or more annually, Ms. Smythe said.

Since leaving the Village People for good in 1983, Mr. Willis, who now lives in the San Diego area, has had a career with more downs than ups. He hit bottom in 2006, when he was sentenced to three years’ probation on drug possession charges and agreed to enter the Betty Ford Center for a rehab.

Since then Mr. Willis, who declined a request for an interview for this article, has often gone to court or threatened legal action in pursuit of what he sees as his rights to the music and image of the Village People. He has taken action against the Sun Bowl football game and Hallmark cards, winning settlements, and this month he vowed to sue the Tampa Bay Rays for using his voice and image as stadium entertainment.