The concept of concept groups, and what it means for all of us
Victor Willis has been off radar for quite a long time. But about 35 years ago, he was at the peak of his career as lead singer of the Village People. And because it was 35 years ago, he’s trying to get the ownership of the songs he made back then.
The New York Times posted this article about how he is trying to sue the record companies to get control over his share of Village People songs by 2013. Because he should be the rightful owner of Y.M.C.A., or should he?
Stewart L. Levy, of the New York firm Eisenberg Tanchum & Levy, describes:
The Village People were a concept group, created by my clients, who picked the people and the costumes. It was probably no different than the Monkees when they started. We hired this guy. He was an employee, we gave them the material and a studio to record in and controlled what was recorded, where, what hours and what they did.
The designer of the iPhone doesn’t sue Apple because it was his design. They hired him to do it. Jørn Utzon doesn’t get a fee of every ticket for the Sydney Opera House because he was the architect. They payed him to do the job, and that’s it.
Somehow we, the average customer, think of ‘music stars’ as different, because we are ‘fans’ of the people. All the screaming girls in line to see Take That didn’t go because they were fans of Sony, or now Universal. They were fans of the four guys on stage. But they’re simply employees of the record companies.
Point is, Willis is going after 33 Village People songs that were made under ‘a copyright provision that returns ownership of creative works to recording artists and songwriters after 35 years’.
Mr. Levy argues:
Mr. Willis does not qualify for termination rights because he is only one of several creators of a “joint composition,” and that a majority of the writers must want termination for the claim to take effect. In some cases Mr. Willis was merely a translator or “adapter of French songs” that are not subject to American law and that were originally written by his clients.
How it all will roll out? Time and judge will tell. Point is, we, as workers in a creative industry, aren’t automatically owners of the things we do, simply because we made them. We’d all better dive into these legal issues, and do everything under contract, before you start wanting to eat your own hat.