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.”