Victor Willis, the lead singer of the Village People, just gained a powerful ally: the Songwriter Guild of America, who have backed his legal efforts to regain control over his share of the copyright credit for dozens of the band’s songs.
In April, Willis filed court papers to secure credit for 32 of the Village People’s songs – including the hit “Y.M.C.A.” – based on a rarely cited 1978 revision to copyright law that enables “termination rights” for artists, meaning they can reclaim copyright grants 35 years after a song is published. Willis filed against Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions, who have refuted him by maintaining that they hired the frontman on a work-for-hire basis and that he never owned the songs.
However, now that the Songwriter Guild has backed Willis, the singer has a more solid case. In their legal brief, the guild maintained that the publishing companies in question are merely attempting to snare Willis in a long, costly legal battle that will dissuade him from securing his rightful ownership. “It is a simple fact that authors of copyrighted works have limited financial – and therefore limited legal resources,” they wrote.
The publishing companies attempted to stop the guild from filing the brief, but this week, a district judge in California allowed the filing. According to The New York Times, Judge Barry T. Moskowitz accepted the guild’s participation because it could set a precedent for future artists seeking copyright ownership through the 1978 revision.
Willis is not the first songwriter to request control of his prior work: Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are also currently seeking ownership of past music, as well. However, the fact that Willis was employed by a publishing company at the time of writing does differentiate his case from those of independent artists, and will quite possibly set the standard for all hired songwriters to come.