Intellectual Property Attorney

Termination Right Effective In Landmark Music Copyright Case

As reported in the New York Times, September 13, 2013 marks an important date in the annals of music copyright law. That is the day Victor Willis, former lead singer of the Village People and (more significantly) co-writer of many of their most popular songs, regains an ownership interest in the copyright to “YMCA,” “Go West,” “In The Navy” and 30 other musical compositions.

In a landmark lawsuit filed by the two companies that administer publishing rights to the group’s songs, Mr. Willis has successfully defended his right to terminate copyright grants pursuant to Section 203 of the Copyright Act. His exact share of the copyright he now owns is still being litigated.

We have discussed termination rights under the Copyright Act in several previous blogs. Our four-part series (found here: Part One,
Part Two,
Part Three and
Part Four) explained the various provisions governing copyright termination. We also reported
here and
here on the unsuccessful efforts by the original writer and illustrator of the “Superman” comics to recapture their respective rights.

Mr. Willis’s case is particularly noteworthy because it is the first major contest involving the termination of a grant of copyright rights in music under Section 203. That provision, which went into effect as of January 1, 1978, permits authors to terminate copyright grants after 35 years, provided they abide by certain statutory requirements. Significantly, another provision, effective the same date, extended copyright protection to sound recordings for the first time. Now 35 years later, the first of these copyright grants are becoming eligible for termination.

As in Mr. Willis’s case, the music publishers and recording companies are not anxious to lose their valuable copyrights. Each of the inevitable legal challenges will be watched closely as the courts sort out the issues over the coming months and years.

In a blog next week, we will discuss some of the issues that arose in Mr. Willis’s case, as well as their implications for future cases.

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