35-Years Later, the “Termination” is Awakened: Recording Industry Battle Over Music Records

BY PAMELA ADEWOYIN — The drama continues to unfold in the complicated world of music copyright. This month marks the moment, after six years of legal proceedings, Victor Willis, one of the lead group members of the popular 1970’s group Village People and writer of the hit song “YMCA,” can finally seize the opportunity to take control of his share of the copyright of the well-known song.

In the mid-1970’s copyright law was revised granting “termination rights,” to musicians and songwriters, granting them the ability to regain control of their works. That termination right allows all rights covered under the work to revert back to the authors, or people who own termination rights listed under §§203(1) and (2) of the Copyright Act. Congress passed the legislation in 1976, which went into effect on January 1, 1978, and gives artists like Willis a second chance at copyright ownership for works created post-1978, even if they originally signed away their rights.

Copyright experts are anticipating a slew of lawsuits in the near future, as recordings from 1978, 1979, and the early ‘80s reach the anticipated 35-year mark. However, the termination does not occur immediately. Artists must file their termination notices two years in advance of the date that they wish to regain control of their work. The authors of the song or recording have five years to file a claim once their song or recording qualifies for termination. If the author fails to
file a claim during that time period, they waive their right to reclaim the work.

Willis is seeking control of 33 songs, some of which include popular hits like “In the Navy” and “Go West.” In an interview conducted by the New York Times, Willis described the overwhelming response he has received from publishing companies seeking to use works from his song catalog. Although he has not decided what to do with the song yet, Willis is considering exerting a right he would have under the termination right—the right to prohibit the performance of songs like “YMCA” in any public space or arena containing a substantial number of persons outside of his family. This would mean that the song could not be performed in stadiums, theaters, or parks, which currently use the song. No appeal of the court’s decisions to revert the rights has been issued yet, so the reversion, while possible, is not final.

The issue of termination rights brings to the forefront the importance of understanding the contracts and implications of a deal between a record label and a recording artist. Record companies argue that works like “YMCA” are “works for hire” that are created by artists who are essentially their employees. Therefore, the songs would not be eligible for termination rights. Artists argue that they do not fit the description of an employee, because they do not have many of the benefits and duties of regular employees, and often have to come out of their own pockets to make the initial recordings.

Over the past decade the music industry has been suffering from plummeting sales and copyright infringement issues. Artists seeking their termination rights could cause an additional financial setback to the industry. Several artists have already filed petitions to recover their works, such as Bob Dylan, Charlie Daniels, and Loretta Lynn to name a few. Records like “52nd Street” by Billy Joel, “Darkness on The Edge of Town” and even The issue of termination rights has created a sea of opinions, as “The Best of Earth, Wind, and Fire Vol. 1” by the same-named group were all released in 1978, and are likely to be contested for termination rights in the near future. Many have their eyes set on the Songwriters Guild of America, the Recording Industry Association of America, and even the Supreme Court to see what updates are to come, because termination rights in the music industry will certainly get more interesting.

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