Village People Motorcycle Cop Wins ‘YMCA’ Copyright Case

Village People Original Lead Singer Victor Willis
Victor Willis, the original lead singer of the Village People and writer of the group's biggest hits including Y.M.C.A. Source: via Bloomberg

The Village People’s original lead singer, Victor Willis, can reclaim his copyright interests in the 1970s disco act’s hits, including “YMCA,” “In the Navy” and “Go West.”

U.S. District Judge Barry Ted Moskowitz in San Diego yesterday dismissed a lawsuit brought by the French publisher of the Village People’s songs that had sought to stop Willis from recovering the copyrights he signed over almost 35 years ago. Moskowitz let the publisher, Scorpio Music SA, refile its claim to determine what percentage of the rights Willis owns.

“Willis’s termination affects only the copyright interests that he previously transferred, his undivided interest in the joint work,” the judge said. “The copyright interests transferred by other co-authors will not be affected by Willis’s termination.”

The case is the first to go before a judge under a law that took effect Jan. 1, 1978, giving artists and other copyright holders the option to end post-1977 transfers after 35 years. Willis, who dressed as a motorcycle cop when he performed, last year served notice on Paris-based Scorpio Music and its U.S. affiliate Can’t Stop Music that he was terminating the transfer of his rights.

Joint Compositions

The publisher had argued that Willis couldn’t unilaterally reclaim his interests in the songs, for which he provided English lyrics in 1978 and 1979, because they were joint compositions. Willis argued that under the law he was entitled to recapture his copyright interests because he signed over his rights individually, not together with the other songwriters.

“We’re disappointed, although we don’t think it’s earth-shattering,” said Stewart L. Levy, an attorney with Eisenberg Tanchum & Levy in New York who represents Scorpio. “The big issue is what he gets back.”

The copyright termination only pertains to the U.S. and not to worldwide rights, the lawyer said in a phone interview.

Willis now owns at least one-third of the copyrights in the Village People catalog, his publicist, Linda Smythe, said in an e-mailed statement. The next phase of the case will determine whether Willis should receive as much as 50 percent of the rights because he claims there was really only one co-author on the songs, not two as credited, Smythe said.

‘Vitally Important’

“We’re extremely pleased with the ruling,” Brian Caplan, Willis’s lawyer with Caplan & Ross LLP in New York, said today in a telephone interview.

Caplan said he is confident they will prove at trial that Henri Belolo didn’t write any of the lyrics.

Belolo, the publisher, and the late Jacques Morali are listed as co-authors of most of the 33 songs for which Willis seeks to terminate his copyright grant. Belolo and Morali created the Village People in 1977 based on gay stereotypes they saw in New York’s Greenwich Village.

“This is a vitally important decision under the so-called ‘new’ 35 year termination provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act,” Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America, said in a statement today. “A decision that so emphatically endorses congressional intent to protect creators will hopefully smooth the way for all songwriters seeking to recapture their copyrights.”

The guild filed a brief in support of Willis’s request to dismiss the lawsuit.

The case is Scorpio Music SA v. Willis, 11-1557, U.S. District Court, Southern District of California (San Diego).

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