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Copyright law: 'Policeman' from the Village People wins right to royalties

Victor Willis, the policeman from the band The Village People has won a ruling in a California court which entitles him to claim royalties for dozens of the band's hit songs.

The band was made famous in the late seventies and early eighties by their camp disco classics which included 'Y.M.C.A' and 'Go West'.

Willis won a battle to claim partial ownership of dozens of tracks after a California judge ruled that he could terminate a decades-old publishing deal. The judgment allows Willis to earn royalties on the songs, which for years had been paid to a publisher.

Linda Smith is Victor Willis' publicist.

"To say this decision will send shockwaves through the record industry is an understatement," she said.

The case dates back to amendments to the US Copyright Act which date back to 1978. According to that American law songwriters have the right to terminate copyright deals with labels and publishers, 35 years after they are signed. The allowance is only made available if they give notice to labels. The law comes into effect next year.

Many artists who were making popular music in the late seventies including Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and the Eagles, are now filing notices of termination to publishers to reclaim copyright ownership.

The publishers in this case were Scorpio Music and Can't Stop Productions. They claimed that Willis was not entitled to terminate the agreement because the songs were written by several artists and therefore the actions of one of the writers could not override the collective agreement. The judge however disagreed.

"One author who gives a grant to a publishing company has the right to recapture the copyright interest he created 35 years ago regardless of what other co-authors do or don't do," he said.

Under the terms of the reclamation of copyright, Willis could also be entitled to additional royalties. He previously was only entitled to 20% of any song he had written. 'Y.M.C.A' had only three authors, so in future he could in theory claim up to one third of any royalty payments.

The UK has no similar clause allowing reversion of copyright, although clauses can be written into agreements which stipulate when copyright will revert back to the author.

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

What does copyright cover? (FindLaw)

Find a solicitor near you (FindLaw)