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Village People Singer Files to Regain Copyright Control

Case will test the possibilities of 'termination rights' for artists

August 17, 2011 2:50 PM ET
village people victor willis
Victor Willis of the Village People
© 2009 Victor Willis World

Victor Willis, the original lead singer of the Village People, has filed papers to regain control over his share of the copyright credit for 32 of the band's songs, including the massive hit "Y.M.C.A.," in 2013. Willis' bid hinges on an obscure revision to copyright law enacted in 1978 that grants artists "termination rights" allowing them to take copyrights back from record labels after 35 years provided that they apply two years in advance.

Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions, the two companies that administer publishing rights to the songs, have pushed on Willis' bid, arguing to a Los Angeles court that they both employed the singer and songwriter on a work for hire basis, and as such he has no ownership rights to the material.

Photos: Random Notes
According to lawyers for the companies, Willis' situation is unlike that of songwriters such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and Tom Petty, who are also seeking to regain control of their intellectual property, in that Willis was hired to join the Village People, a concept band created by the label. "We hired this guy. He was an employee, we gave them the material and a studio to record in and controlled what was recorded, where, what hours and what they did," Stewart L. Levy, a lawyer representing Scorpio and Can't Stop told the New York Times.

"This claim of work for hire is a cookie cutter response that's already been postured even by the record industry to the master recordings, it's outrageous," Willis' representative Menda Smythe told Rolling Stone. "Victor Willis wrote those songs, he was never employed. They didn't pay his salary, they never took tax returns. In fact, he receives royalties to this day."

Smythe insists that contrary to the claims of Scorpio and Can't Stop, Willis' bid to reclaim his copyrights is no different from that of Springsteen or Dylan. "It's exactly the same," she says. "This is an important case that will decide this issue for numerous recording artists and writers. This is the first case and everyone's been waiting for it and it's here. The fight has begun."

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