In one of the very first posts on this blog last year, we reported on Victor Willis’s “early victory” in his quest to recover valuable copyrights on songs he co-wrote for the Village People back in the 1970s. (Willis, pictured here, was also their lead singer, dressed back in the day as the “cop.”) Willis was one of the first to invoke a provision of the 1976 Copyright Act that permits artists to “clawback” copyrights they may have improvidently assigned away after 35 years, upon giving two years written notice. The provision is intended to “safeguard[ ] authors against unremunerative transfers” and address “the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until it has been exploited”
Willis had succeeded in blocking the publishing and recording companies that presently control those copyrights from opposing his termination notice on the ground that his co-writers had not joined in it. It was an important victory, but only a provisional one, as other issues remained to be litigated and an appeal of that ruling would seem to be inevitable in due course. Thus, I was surprised to see a story posted on the New York Times website today breathlessly reporting that Willis would indeed be regaining control of “Y-M-C-A,” this coming Friday, the 35th anniversary of his original copyright assignment and, what’s more, he’s not so sure he is going to let anyone else use it. Should bands booked for weddings and bar mitzvahs this weekend be revamping their set lists?
I think not. As is often the case with stories about litigation in the popular press, even in our national newspaper of record, the statements and posturing of the opposing parties are given equal credence, as if it the truth were unknowable. Willis’s attorney is quoted as saying: “The termination is going to occur. What is in dispute is how much he is getting back, one-half or one-third.” The attorney for the publisher and record company, however, says:
“Since an appeal of the court’s decision permitting such reversion has yet to be taken, it is far from certain that Mr. Willis will, at the end of the day, ever gain control over any share of the copyrights in the disputed songs.” As a result, he maintained, any “article on his recapture is, therefore, premature and misleading.”
A review of the docket and the most recent ruling in Willis’s litigation supports the latter view of the state of play. Undoubtedly, Willis has had the September 13, 2013 date circled on his calendar for a long time, and in the end that may be the effective date of a judicially-recognized termination, but his life will be pretty much the same this Friday as it is today.