Village People member & writer of YMCA uses law to reclaim his copyrights! by Professor Tonya M. Evans is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at https://proftevans.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/ymcasong/.
Forget Y … M … C … A.
V (which stands for victory) is Victor Willis’s new favorite letter of the alphabet. That’s because he, the “policeman” member of the Village People, successfully used a powerful right in the Copyright Act called termination of transfers to reclaim his copyright in the popular and perennial hit YMCA and other songs.
The termination right is a little known but powerful opportunity for people who’ve created copyrighted works (like a songwriter, writer, photographer, for example) and transferred them to others (a recording or publishing company, for example) to get their rights back 35 years after the transfer. It’s a right that exists regardless of what the original transfer document said. So all of that “in perpetuity” language? Forget about it. The right cannot be contracted away but it can be forever lost if not exercised in a timely or proper fashion.
The process is technical and set forth in the Copyright Act. It requires a termination notice to be sent to the current copyright holder.
Section 203 of the Copyright Act permits authors (or, if the authors are not alive, their surviving spouses, children or grandchildren, or executors, administrators, personal representatives or trustees) to terminate grants of copyright assignments and licenses that were made on or after January 1, 1978 when certain conditions have been met.
Notices of termination may be served no earlier than 25 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 30 years after the execution of the grant or 25 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first).
However, termination of a grant cannot be effective until 35 years after the execution of the grant or, if the grant covers the right of publication, no earlier than 40 years after the execution of the grant or 35 years after publication under the grant (whichever comes first).
Note that because notices of termination under this section may be served, at their earliest, 25 years after the execution, the first date on which any section 203 notices of termination could be served was January 1, 2003.
Willis’s win here is a win for all artists who want a second chance to benefit financially from a transfer made early in their career before the true value of the work was realized. But not all parties are as thrilled as Willis and similarly situated artists. Exhibit A? Record companies:
“Song publishing and record companies have consistently opposed artists’ efforts to invoke termination rights, which have the potential to affect a company’s bottom line severely. They argue that, in many cases, songs and recordings belong to them in perpetuity, rather than to the artists, because they are “works for hire,” created not by independent contractors but by artists who are, in essence, their employees.” Larry Rother, NYTimes.com
So what advice does Willis give to other artists who gave away or sold works early in their careers in the late 70s, 80s and beyond?
“I’m hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on. … When you’re young, you just want to get out there and aren’t really paying attention to what’s on paper. I never even read one contract they put in front of me, and that’s a big mistake.”