Copyright Termination Rights

The 1976 revision of the Copyright Act included Chapter 2 on Copyright Ownership and Transfer and specifically §203 which gave musicians and songwriters the ability to terminate any previous grant of transfer or license of copyright after 35 years. The music industry will now begin to feel the impact of that change as musicians and songwriters invoke their termination rights. In Scorpio Music SA v. Willis, a lawsuit disputing the rights to the songs of the 1970s disco group The Village People, the Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Southern District of California issued an Order dismissing the plaintiff music publisher’s complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that one of the group members had no right in the copyrights to the songs and enjoining him from making any claims to the copyrights in them.

The 10 page highly instructive ruling, which allows Victor Willis, The Village People’s original lead singer, to reclaim the copyrights in 33 of his hit songs that include “YMCA” and “In the Navy,” is likely to have broader impact as other songwriters assert their copyright termination rights. See the NY Times article, Record Industry Braces for Artists’ Battles Over Song Rights, which states that the United States Copyright Office has received filings from artist Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Bryan Adams, Loretta Lynn, Kris Kristofferson, Tom Waits and Charlie Daniels to regain some of their compositions. Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America issued a statement: “This is a vitally important decision under the so-called ‘new’ 35 year termination provisions of the 1976 Copyright Act. A decision that so emphatically endorses congressional intent to protect creators will hopefully smooth the way for all songwriters seeking to recapture their copyrights.”

Users of the Brooklyn Law School Library can learn more about copyright by checking out from the Reserve Collection at the Circulation Desk Principles of Copyright Law by Roger E. Schechter and John R. Thomas (Call #KF2994 .S34 2010). The book, which is part of West’s Concise Hornbook Series, guides the reader through traditional topics, such as fair use, and other topics, such as duration of copyright interests and termination of transfers. It is ideal for end-of-semester review by students in both basic and advanced courses on copyright law, and those seeking a comprehensive yet manageable introduction to copyright law.