‘Village People’ singer’s rights suit dances on

Village-peopleWhile disco has been dead for years, a counterclaim filed by the original lead singer of the Village People against the group’s music publishers lives: A U.S. District Court in Los Angeles has California denied a motion to dismiss a counterclaim filed by Scorpio Music S.A. and Can’t Stop Productions Inc. against performer Victor Willis. He allegedly was hired by Scorpio, a music publisher, and Can’t Stop, a sub-publisher owned by Scorpio, between 1977-1979, to translate the lyrics of and/or create new lyrics for certain musical compositions that were owned and published in France by Scorpio.  The 70’s anthem Y.M.C.A. is one of 33 registered copyrighted musical compositions that list Willis as one of several writers.  He signed an adaption agreement transferring all of his interests in the works copyright to Can’t Stop, which, in turn, transferred its rights to the lyrics to Scorpio.

In 2011, however, Willis unilaterally terminated those grants of copyrights, which prompted the publishers to sue. They first challenged his right to terminate unilaterally, because these were joint works under the 1976 Copyright Act.  The court ruled in Willis’ favor, holding that “a joint author who separately transfers his copyright interest may unilaterally terminate the grant.”   The Copyright Act of 1976 gives authors the right to terminate a transfer of copyright by serving an advanced notice of termination. An author may terminate the grant at any time during a period of five years beginning at the end of thirty-five years from the date of execution of the grant. The author must serve the termination notice on the grantee (or grantee’s successor) not less than two and not more than ten years before the specified date of termination.

Scorpio and Can’t Stop then filed an amended complaint challenging Willis’ claim that he is entitled to a one-half interest in the works. The publishers argued the works had three authors, which entitle him to a one-third interest in the works.  Willis counterclaimed, asserting that Henri Belolo, whose name had appeared on the works, was not a third author, giving him a one-half interests in the pieces.  The publishers sought to dismiss Willis’ counterclaim on timeliness arguments — a statute of limitations violation and the doctrine of laches.

The publishers argue that Willis’ counterclaim should be barred by the statute of limitations because the claim had accrued in 1981. They claim that the copyright registrations and printed labels on the original vinyl records that included Belolo constituted plain and express repudiation of his claim to one-half interests in the works at issue.  The court, however, said it was unconvinced that mere filing of copyright registrations listing Belolo as an author and release of records with labels identifying him as an author rise to the level of “plain and express repudiation” communicated to Willis.

Because there are issues of fact that prevent the Court from ruling upon whether Willis’s counterclaim is barred by the three-year statute of limitations set forth in § 507(b), the publisher’s motion to dismiss was denied.  And if Willis’ counterclaim is timely under § 507(b), it is unlikely that there was unreasonable delay that would support the application of the laches doctrine.