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Why copyright termination heralds a perfect storm

For those AIPLA Annual Meeting attendees who (mis)spent their youth dancing to the Village People’s disco classic YMCA, it might come as something of a shock to realise that the band released the song almost 35 years ago

The song’s age is significant, because section 203 of the U.S. Copyright Act gives authors the right to terminate grants of copyright made after January 1, 1978, as long as they exercised the grant at least 35 years ago.

Kevin C. Parks of Leydig Voit & Mayer spoke at an AIPLA Annual Meeting session on copyright entitled Copyright Openings and Closings-Open Source, the OPEN Act, and Termination Rights. He explained why the law has the makings of a perfect storm—or at least a perfect storm of litigation, using YMCA co-writer Victor Willis as a case study.

Willis (the Village People’s “cop” and lead singer) assigned his rights in a series of Village People songs to a music publishing company soon after writing them. Willis married a lawyer in 2007 (“a good move,” said Parks), and later filed a notice of termination on publisher Scorpio Music. It responded by seeking a declaratory statement that the notice had been improperly filed, claiming that since Willis did not represent a majority of the joint authors of the songs in suit he could not unilaterally terminate the assignment.

But in May, a California court ruled that Willis was entitled to reclaim his copyright in the songs since he had transferred his copyright interest separately from the other authors.

“Although it was a narrow holding, it was definitely round one to the creative community,” said Parks. Now other music is subject to termination notices, with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Kris Kristofferson among those seeking the return of their rights.

Yet the ruling may not strip music publishers of their catalogues, said Parks. Not all artists want to manage and exploit their own rights: it’s a complex, time-consuming business that many are happy to leave to specialists. There may also be commercial advantages to leaving all of their copyrights in one place. That means that many artists will choose to negotiate new, more generous terms for their copyright assignments rather than reclaim the rights.

Parks left the audience with his own, updated version of Willis’ song: “Young man,” he said. “It’s fine to (terminate) YMCA.”

Download the AIPLA Daily Report, published by Managing IP from Washington, DC from our conference newspapers page.

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