Victor Willis, a member of the 1970’s Disco group Village People, prevailed in California in a relatively high case concerning the termination of copyright assignments. Willis, the ersatz police officer, notified Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions, the two companies currently administering 33 musical compositions made famous by of the Village People, of his intent to terminate assignments of his share of the copyrights to certain compositions. The administrators fought back, contending that Willis did not have the right to terminate. The Court sided with Willis.
The administrators’ position raises the obvious question: what exactly are the contours of the right to terminate? This case, however, dealt only with one such contour. Section 203 of the Copyright Act allows authors who assigned their copyrights to third parties to terminate the transfer roughly 35 years later. There are strict guidelines which copyright owners seeking to terminate assignments must follow. One of these requirements is that where an assignment is signed by more than one author, a majority of the authors who signed the original grant (or their heirs) must join in the termination.
Because Willis was a co-author of various compositions, the administrators urged that he should be required to have a majority of his co-authors join his position. Yet, the assignments from Willis to the administrators—that is, the transfers he was seeking to terminate—were signed only by him, and granted only his rights. The administrators were thus focusing on the underlying rights (i.e. the number of authors of the composition) rather than the transfer of those rights (i.e. the assignment of the underlying rights). As to the latter, the transfer was only from Willis; none of his co-authors were involved in the transfer that he sought to terminate. And that was all that mattered to the Court, which applied the plain language of the statute, and ruled in Willis’ favor.
There are a variety of complex issues that arise with the copyright termination provisions. As the Court explained, this is not one of them. A copy of the Willis Order is attached.