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Revenge of the Village People

Copyright law is soon going to allow more recording artists the chance to reassert rights to songs they made decades ago.

May 17, 2012
  • The Village People, a pop disco group, is shown in this 1979 photo. This month Victor Willis (the one dressed as a motorcycle cop) won a legal battle to reclaim his share of the copyrights to the songs he co-wrote, including such classics as "Y.M.C.A." and "Macho Man."
The Village People, a pop disco group, is shown in this 1979 photo. This month… (Can't Stop Productions…)

As a singer and songwriter for the 1970s disco group the Village People, Victor Willis scored multiple hits that helped define that era for the baby boom generation. Now, Willis (the one dressed as a motorcycle cop, not the cowboy, the construction worker, the Native American or the biker) stands to collect a larger share of the money those hits generate. This month he won a legal battle to reclaim his share of the copyrights to the songs he co-wrote, including such classics as "Y.M.C.A." and "Macho Man." It's a step many other top artists from that era are starting to take as well, threatening to shake up the industry even more than the disco revolution did.

For almost as long as the law has protected copyrights, it has also given creators the ability to reclaim the rights they assign to publishers and distributors. The justification is that authors, songwriters and other creators have little bargaining power when they're just starting their careers, so they should have a chance to renegotiate after they're well established. When Congress updated federal copyright law in 1976, though, it decreed that artists had to wait 35 years before they could reclaim their rights, and even then they had to give publishers at least two years' notice.

That change applied to works created in or after 1978, meaning that the first set of music rights can be reclaimed in 2013. Willis notified two publishers holding the rights to Village People songs last year, but they resisted, arguing that he shouldn't be able to act without the support of the majority of the writers credited on those songs (Willis typically shared credits with two or three other writers). But U.S. District Judge Barry T. Moskowitz in Los Angeles ruled that not only could Willis reclaim his share of the rights unilaterally, he could strike nonexclusive deals to use the songs in commercials, movies and other new products without the consent of his writing partners. He would merely be obliged to pay them their share of the proceeds.

Industry executives say they expect many songwriters and recording artists to stay with their current publishers and labels, but to use the termination process to claim a bigger cut of the royalties. Yet the landscape is much different from what it was three decades ago. The Internet and digital technologies have increased the demand for music and given artists many new ways to promote, distribute, monetize and monitor the use of their works without the help of corporate middlemen. That's especially important to acts whose works have been left unexploited in a label's vaults, overlooked in the passage of time.

The baby boomer audience remains large and hungry for songs from Willis' heyday. Music industry economist Barry Massarsky estimates that standards and older songs make up about 60% of the music aired on commercial radio, which translates to more than half of the $300 million in royalties that songwriters collect from radio each year.

Some major legal issues remain to be resolved by the courts, including identifying which compositions or recordings are "works for hire" — ones that artists can't reclaim the rights to because they were created at the behest of a label or publisher. Another question is what rights will be reclaimed from the record companies by music producers, some of whom did practically everything but sing for the artists they recorded. In the meantime, Willis' victory has made many more artists aware of the chance they have to reclaim their rights, or at the very least win a larger share of the money their songs are still making.

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