Victor Willis, the songwriter and original lead singer of the Village People, isn’t done being a provocative figure in the music business. Fresh off a victory earlier this week in a battle to terminate his share of a copyright to the band’s hit songs, including “YMCA,” Willis has scored a second victory in an unresolved battle to cancel the music publisher’s trademark rights to “Village People.” Willis is alleging that the song publisher has committed fraud, and in an exclusive interview with THR, tells us what he intends to do with his terminated rights and how joint agreements by publishers and record labels have robbed songwriters like himself of revenue.
On Tuesday, Willis prevailed in dismissing a lawsuit from Can’t Stop and Scorpio Music, the two companies that administer publishing rights to the group’s songs and attempted to stop Willis’ termination by arguing that as a co-author, he could only terminate with his fellow song authors. The judge rejected the music publishers’ theory in a decision that resounded across the music industry where many other songwriters including Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Tom Waits are also seeking to terminate rights.
If Willis has become the new symbol for songwriters reclaiming their rights over songs, there could be a reason for that. His wife, Karen Willis, is an attorney, and he was very prepared to instigate the battle. “We were looking forward to this for a few years and we filed on the first date we were able to,” he says, adding that since his victory, he’s received text messages from musicians around the world congratulating him on his success.
Songs by the Village People continue to earn millions of dollars per year, says Willis, who stands to benefit significantly as his revenue share on the group’s songs could potentially increase from 12-20 percent to 50 percent.
But just as important is Willis’ potential new licensing authority.
Copyright law permits each co-author the independent right to use or non-exclusively license the work, provided an accounting to the other coÃ¢ÂÂowners of any profits. This raises some issues for terminated rights in regard to new dealmaking in light of existing contracts with possibly exclusive terms, but for now, Willis says he’s interested in being a different kind of rightsholder from the previous regime.
“I want to make it known that I plan on being more flexible on ‘YMCA’ and other songs than other publishers,” he says. “They refused to do certain deals that I am now position to do.”
The singer/songwriter gives an example.
“VH1 once wanted to use ‘YMCA’ on one of its shows but the publisher, who held sole control, didn’t get everything they wanted and refused,” he says. “I’m going to allow that.”
And why would Can’t Stop refuse to permit VH1 from using the song?
According to Willis, it’s because they had a side deal with Universal Records to derive some benefit from the licensing of master recordings. A song, after all, embodies different rights, from the composition to the original recording. VH1 purportedly only wanted to use a cover version of the song, which would mean the network would only have to pay sync rights, not the more expensive licensing of the original recording. (Producers of Mad Men for example recently had to pay $250,000 for rights to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”)
Stewart Levy, the attorney for Can’t Stop, responds that Willis has a history of making “frivolous” charges and being “inconsistent” and says that Willis recently attempted to sue his client for licensing a Hallmark greeting card that popped open and played “Macho Man,” but didn’t include Willis’ voice. Levy says that Willis’ claims in this lawsuit of violating the Lanham Act over a false suggestion of origin were dismissed.
Nevertheless, Levy grants that the judge rejected Can’t Stop’s theories about co-author termination and says he will take the judge’s invitation to at least dispute what portion of the copyright that Willis reclaims. He says there won’t be a decision on whether to appeal until there’s been a final determination in the case.
Willis’ copyright fight has gathered the most attention, but he and his wife have also been pursuing a cancellation of the “Village People” trademark. The pair allege that the mark has been abandoned from non-use, particularly when it comes to live performances and sound recordings, and Willis is involved in an ongoing war at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board with Can’t Stop over whether the publisher committed fraud by renewing a registration without accurate information. On Thursday, the TTAB denied Can’t Stop’s motion for summary judgment.
Willis has also been arguing that “Village People” is a generic and descriptive term that’s not ripe for trademark by anybody. In a previous TTAB dispute that was dismissed earlier this year, Willis argued that the term described music “by and attributable to people in a village.”
That brought a rebuke by the song publisher, who wrote in a filing, “If an average American consumer was completely unaware of Registrant’s goods and services, it is self evident that such consumer would not reach the conclusion that ‘Village People’ describes music or people from Greenwich Village.”
The battle over the trademark continues, and so too in all probability does the fight over whether Willis can terminate his share of the copyright.
He says he expects the publishers to appeal.
“The case involves so much money that they stand to lose that I don’t think they’ll stop fighting,” says Willis, who is about to release a new album that’s appropriately titled Solo Man. The singer adds, “I’m glad that I am in position to be the one to be fight, not just for me, but for all of us. I thank the Songwriters Guild of America for backing me.”
Levy responds, “This isn’t the case the industry has been waiting for.” He says it has unique facts and urges some sympathy for some of the other co-authors of the terminated songs whose revenue share could decrease as a result of the judgment.