Macho, Macho Copyright: Village People’s Lead Singer Faces Resistance in Terminating Copyright Grant Pursuant to 17 USC 203

Macho, Macho Copyright: Village People’s Lead Singer Faces Resistance in Terminating Copyright Grant Pursuant to 17 USC 203

Y.M.C.A., Macho Man, In The Navy - you might never admit it, but you've danced to at least one of these, maybe at a sporting event or a wedding or (sadly) your prom. Thankfully, you're now a practicing attorney, and all that Village People stuff is behind you.

Or is it?

Strange days when copyrights and the Village People collide, but sometimes, the planets align and odd things happen. In April, Victor Willis, the original lead singer of the Village People, filed a federal lawsuit in New York, seeking to recover "understated" royalties from Can't Stop Productions (complaint). That alone wouldn't be of much interest. It's Can't Stop's subsequent if not retaliatory lawsuit that raises an eye.

On July 14th, in California's Southern District, Can't Stop (along with Scorpio Music) filed a declaratory judgment action against Willis (complaint). Specifically, Can't Stop is seeking a declaration that Willis' attempt to exercise recapture rights under 17 USC § 203(a) is void and of no force.

Last January, Willis served upon Can't Stop a § 203 Notice of Termination of copyright grants. As mentioned in an earlier post, § 203 provides for the termination of transfers and licenses granted by an author. Specifically, § 203 states that under certain conditions:

In the case of any work other than a work made for hire, the exclusive or nonexclusive grant of a transfer or license of copyright or of any right under a copyright, executed by the author on or after January 1, 1978, otherwise than by will, is subject to termination ....

(emphasis added)

The conditions for termination include: termination by an authorized author/person(s), a 35-year period between the grant's date of execution and the termination, and advance notice served not less than two or more than ten years before the termination date. Also, termination can be effected notwithstanding any agreement to the contrary, including an agreement to make a will or to make any future grant.

Some major record companies have offered an argument against § 203's license/transfer termination. They're pointing to § 203's language, "other than a work made for hire," and arguing that sound recordings belong to them in perpetuity.

According to Can't Stop's complaint, Willis entered into a series of "Adaptation Agreements" with Can't Stop. These Agreements allegedly established Willis as a "writer for hire."

Pursuant to the terms of the Agreements Can't Stop, acting on behalf of Scorpio Music, hired defendant to translate the lyrics of and/or create new lyrics for certain musical compositions which were owned and published in France by Scorpio Music.

Can't Stop instructed defendant Willis concerning what English lyrics it desired him to provide, and supervised defendant Willis' work in this regard by, among other things, providing him with, and paying for, the facilities in which he rendered his services.


Can't Stop, as part of its regular business of representing Scorpio Music in the United States, supervised and controlled the manner and means by which defendant Willis worked, including its location and duration, as well as the substance and meaning of the lyrics to be provided.

Based on the facts, Can't Stop offers the following arguments against Willis' assertion of his § 203 termination rights:

  • Joint authorship prevents Willis from being a "majority of authors" under § 203. Thus, he cannot exercise his termination rights without at least one other writer joining him;
  • Can't Stop employed Willis as a writer for hire, and therefore, he has no rights pursuant to § 203's "other than a work made for hire" language; and
  • Willis is time barred from contesting the validity of his status as a writer for hire.

.... subscribers can explore/search Copyright Law resources on or access any of these Mathew Bender Copyright Law publications:

Non-subscribers can purchase Copyright Law treatises/resources and Mathew Bender publications from the LexisNexis Bookstore  

For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions connect with us through our corporate site.