Saturday, September 21, 2013

I Won My Case At The YMCA!

There are some musicians such as Prince, Toby Keith, Madonna, Jimmy Page and several others who are quite knowledgeable about the business side of the music business. They make it a point never to make the same mistake twice. They often have complete control over when, where, how and by whom their music is used. If someone is using their music then they are going to be paid in full, right down to the penny, according to the law governing that use. Although such musicians are not uncommon today, I don't know that they're the majority. It's a rare person who is expert in tax, copyright and contract laws of multiple jurisdictions, can successfully run international multimillion dollar concert promotion companies, can handle all their own merchandising, advertising and publishing, understands accounting backwards and forwards, and finds the time to continue to be the one in a million amazing songwriter, bandleader, musician or performer who originally grabbed the adulation of millions. There have always been performers who were more concerned with "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" than with ensuring that their business was tight. When their manager or lawyer told them to sign something they signed it. When their record company got cute with royalties they didn't demand an outside audit. And when a radio DJ's name showed up on a song they alone wrote they shrugged and told themselves that was the cost of doing business.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. One person who learned that the hard way and has fortunately lived long enough to finally see the law work in his favor rather than against him is Victor Willis, better known as The Policeman in the group The Village People.
In the lucrative world of music copyright, it may be something of a watershed moment: on Friday, after six years of legal wrangling and decades after he wrote the lyrics to the hit song “YMCA,” Victor Willis will gain control of his share of the copyright to that song and others he wrote when he was the lead singer of the 1970s disco group the Village People. Mr. Willis, who dressed as a policeman during the group’s heyday, was able to recapture those songs, thanks to a little-known provision of copyright legislation that went into effect in 1978. That law granted musicians and songwriters what are known as “termination rights,” allowing them to recover control of their creations after 35 years, even if they had originally signed away their rights.
“YMCA” is one of 33 songs whose copyright Mr. Willis was seeking to recover when he first went to court. Hits like “In the Navy” and “Go West” are part of that group, but another well-known song whose lyrics Mr. Willis wrote, “Macho Man,” was excluded because it was written just before the 1978 law went into effect. In a telephone interview from his home in Southern California, Mr. Willis said he has not yet decided how best to exploit the song catalog. “I’ve had lots of offers, from record and publishing companies, a lot of stuff, but I haven’t made up my mind how it’s going to be handled.”
He added, however, that he is thinking of prohibiting the Village People — the band still exists and is touring this month and next, though with largely different members — from singing any of his songs, at least in the United States. “I learned over the years that there are some awesome powers associated with copyright ownership,” Mr. Willis said. “You can stop somebody from performing your music if you want to, and I might object to some usages.” 
Mr. Willis had declined interview requests during earlier stages of the dispute, but said he decided to speak out now so as to alert other artists, both established and emerging, to protect their copyrights. He said it was only because his wife is a lawyer that he became aware of his termination rights. “I’m hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on,” he said. “When you’re young, you just want to get out there and aren’t really paying attention to what’s on paper. I never even read one contract they put in front of me, and that’s a big mistake.”
Good for him I say. Again, no matter what sort of business you enter into, whether it's creative or prosaic, whether you're a cubicle drone working for Penetrode Corporation or an innovative fly by the seat of your pants entrepreneur it's critical that you always maintain awareness of your rights and your options, especially if you're in a contractual relationship. Because as we've discussed before there is always someone willing to take horrible advantage of you and your ignorance or deference and smile at you while they do so. No one cares as much about you as you do. Believe that.
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