All good things come to those who wait — and this seems especially to apply to musicians and artists covered under the termination rights section of the Copyright Act, as added and made effective Jan. 1, 1978. They may need to wait 35 years but they eventually can seize back copyrights on their original works. One of the first and public instances of this process occurred recently when Victor Willis, the cop in the vintage disco boogie band, the Village People, publicly reclaimed his rights in an action before Chief Judge Barry T. Moskowitz in a federal court in San Diego. And now Willis has extended his legal winning streak, with federal jurors deciding his rights’ ownership should be broader than he had been awarded before.
While this case seemingly may be just one musician reclaiming his copyright rights, as the statute allows, the coverage that Willis’ action has received may prove key to spreading the word to other artists and musicians whose works only now are qualifying for similar consideration. Willis said he knew about this aspect of copyright law only because his wife is a lawyer. Creatives’ right to reclaim their works is not open-ended; original author-creators get only five years after the copyright’s initial, 35-year grant of exclusivity in which they may terminate and reclaim their rights.
There’s potentially substantial sums of money involved, for many affected parties. In Willis’ case, it affected rights to thirty-three songs, many of them chart-toppers of the Seventies and Eighties that still create a buzz when played today: Who hasn’t shaken some part of the anatomy to YMCA at a wedding or party or giggled at the playing, as commentary in a film or broadcast report, of In the Navy?
While the recapture of copyrights no doubt will be pleasing to creatives–many of whom were up and coming in the days of yore and may have gotten less favorable deals as a result–publishers and others down the creative chain may be scored by changes in terms they had grown accustomed to in rights of these works for their first 35 years.
Willis, for example, now has greater ability to prevent venues from playing his music, as well as gaining new leverage in dealing with new incarnations of the Village People, who are touring and using the original band’s songs. How popular will these cover-like groups be if they can’t bring crowds up on their feet with Village People classics?
It’s also worth noting that Willis’ case has helped established that a co-author can recapture rights, regardless of what other co-authors do; his fellow Village People performers and song writers did not join him in his action but he can and has reclaimed his rights. At trial, another thorny issue was raised but withdrawn: concerns as to the songs’ status as works for hire. Since managers and producers put this group together and they created materials thereafter, were their songs then products of that hiring or original, so their creators could reclaim rights?
While the win the federal court was in big win for musicians in the way of reclaiming their rights, it also opened up another suit to determine the percentage of those songs that Willis could reclaim ownership to; jurors left him to thirty-three percent in many instances but he did win a fifty-percent claim to YMCA and a few others.
Meantime, there is another route for artists and publishers and recording labels to deal with the challenges that rights recaptures can pose: renegotiate. As he is wont to do, Prince has proven a pace-setter, attracting no small industry attention when he re-did his agreements with Warner Bros. so he also regained rights to his recording catalog.