Victor Willis is not just the “cop/sailor” from the Village People. He is now leading the voice for musicians seeking to take back control of their copyrighted works. On Wednesday, attorneys for Willis appeared in front of a federal judge to argue why copyright grants to 33 of Willis’s musical compositions, including hits such as “Y.M.C.A.” and “In the Navy”, should be terminated despite objections from Can’t Stop Productions (CSP), the company who currently owns the rights.
In 1977, Congress amended the copyright laws to allow musicians to retake control of their works 35 years after creation. Before the law was changed, copyright grants could not be terminated until 56 years from the earliest date of copyright registration. By taking back control of their works, artists are able to reclaim royalty streams and creative control of their intellectual property. An artist can serve a Notice of Termination up to 10 years in advance of the date of termination, but it must be served at least two years before termination.
Willis isn’t the only musician seeking to regain control of his work. Jim Peterik, better known as the co-writer of “Eye of the Tiger”, is also sending a termination notice, seeking ownership of the song. And it isn’t only lesser-known artists who are seeking termination. Music icons such as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Loretta Lynn, and Tom Waits have already filed termination notices.
Obviously, the record industry does not plan on giving up their copyrights so easily. The industry has dealt with lackluster sales for years and losing these copyrights, and the royalties that go with them, would be a huge financial blow. Willis and other artists can be assured they will be in for a fight. In Willis’s case, CSP has raised two issues that may stop him from winning his case. One issue is whether Willis can seek termination because he was not the sole writer of the songs at issue. Second, if Willis was employed when he created the songs and simply handed over the copyrights as part of the scope of his employment, then under U.S. copyright law, he isn’t considered the author and cannot seek termination.
The issue of termination promises only to get more contentious. In the next few years alone, 25 top-selling records are likely to face termination rights claims. These records include Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”, AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. These records alone have sold a combined 74 million copies. You can bet the record industry isn’t going to let them go so easily.