Victor Willis, who dressed as the police officer in the group and was its lead singer, has won a victory to gain control of his share of the copyright to “YMCA,” which he helped write. Willis has received control because of a clause in 1978 copyright legislation that allows a songwriter to recover control to a song even if the songwriter originally signed away rights to it.
The provision takes effect 35 years after the song is copyrighted, and Willis is taking full advantage of the opportunity.
He has sought to recover copyrights to 33 Village People songs he wrote or co-wrote, including “In The Navy” and “Go West.”
One of its biggest hits, “Macho Man,” is excluded because it was written just before the law went into effect, according to the New York Times.
The victory could also have a significant impact on the touring version of the band.
Willis told the Times that, as copyright holder, he may prohibit the band from singing any of his songs inside the U.S., and maybe internationally.
The victory in Federal District Court could have major impact for songwriters of the era, from the Eagles to Billy Joel.
Record companies have maintained that the music they provide come from a composition of artists, producers, studio musicians and other collaborators, and song royalties should be distributed among all of them – especially the record companies.
But if anyone could be considered a gun for hire, it would be Willis, and independent songwriters should have better chances of receiving their copyrights. “We hired [Willis],” Stewart Levy, an attorney representing the companies that controlled the Village People’s song catalog, told the Times 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.”
To that effect, Willis wrote the songs with Jacques Morali, who died in 1991, and French record producer Henri Belolo.
The distribution of songwriting credits is in the courts.
“The termination is going to occur,” a Willis attorney told the paper. “What is in dispute is how much he is getting back, one-half or one-third.”
Levy responded to Willis’ court victory. “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.”
He said that any “article on his recapture is, therefore, premature and misleading.”