It's a little-known fact that artists don't actually own the music they create once they sign with a record label. Though copyright law says artists can retain control over their song again after 35 years, record companies don't exactly make it easy.
Victor Willis, more easily identified as the policeman in the Village people, can tell you all about it. After six years of wrangling in the court system, Willis finally won back control of 33 songs, including the smash-hit "Y.M.C.A."
Though Willis remained silent for most of the court proceedings, he spoke out after this decision to let other artists know about their rights. He said he wasn't aware of the laws until his wife, a lawyer, discovered them and informed him. Willis can now bar anyone from performing his song, including other members of the Village People, or from playing it in public spaces like the Yankees do at Yankee Stadium.
Now, he hopes other artists will lawyer up and take back what's theirs.
If his legal battle is any indication, artists will need a good lawyer, even after this precedent.
From the New York Times:
Song publishing and record companies have consistently opposed artists’ efforts to invoke termination rights, which have the potential to affect a company’s bottom line severely. They argue that, in many cases, songs and recordings belong to them in perpetuity, rather than to the artists, because they are “works for hire,” created not by independent contractors but by artists who are, in essence, their employees.
That was initially one of the arguments invoked against Mr. Willis in Federal District Court in Los Angeles. “We hired this guy,” Stewart L. Levy, a lawyer for the companies that controlled the Village People song catalog, said last year. “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.” Eventually, though, that argument was withdrawn. If the “work for hire” doctrine can’t be made to apply to a prefab group like the Village People, it stands little chance of surviving a test against other artists who emerged in the 1970s and who always had a much greater degree of autonomy, like Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Billy Joel and Parliament-Funkadelic.
But, as I mentioned, the record companies don't make it easy. Though Willis and his lawyer are moving on to try and figure out how much money Willis can make from the song, the defense isn't resting.
In an e-mail he sent from Europe, Mr. Levy challenged that interpretation. “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 fairly typical response from a lawyer whose industry is one of the many giants looking in the stars and seeing their power and control slowly slip away. Best of luck, Mr. Willis.