Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Who Owns A Song?

Everyone knows the 1970s disco anthem “YMCA.” It is a ubiquitous song that, forty years later, is played at ballparks, parties, and on the radio. What many people do not know, however, is that Victor Willis, the band’s lead singer (the policeman), has just gained control of his share of ownership of the song. Why has this process taken so long and why is Mr. Willis, of all people, entitled to partial ownership?

Here is what we know, as recounted on The New York Times' "Music Popcast":
  • Victor Willis wrote the lyrics of “YMCA” in 1978.
  • The Village People was a group prefabricated by producer, Henri Belolo (who co-authored “YMCA” along with Willis and Jacques Morali, now deceased).
  • Because of The Village People being a prefabricated group (i.e. not creating anything of their own), the record label claimed legal ownership of their songs. (“Ownership” and “authorship” are two different terms in the music copyright world.) The labels claimed that Belolo, Willis, and Morali were merely “writers for hire,” enforced by contract.
  • In 1978, songwriters and recording artists gained the right to reclaim song rights from record labels after 35 years of the debut of the song, which Willis did.

Although the case seems quite straightforward, very few people even understand the copyright laws of today. The record labels that own the rights to “YMCA” claim that Willis was under a contract stating that all work would be theirs. However, Willis’s victory last week in the Federal District Court of Los Angeles is considered a landmark case. Essentially, its significance rests on the decision that songwriters own their own songs, a characteristic that we in the classical music world have long assumed and taken for granted. The court ruling is currently being appealed, meaning more years could pass until we finally have an answer to the question that has eluded even the shrewdest of intellectual property experts: who owns a song? 

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