The first decision on a termination of a copyright grant under Section 203 of the Copyright Act is out of the gate. It’s a bit of a no-brainer though; in fact, the case was decided on a motion to dismiss.
Victor Willis was one of the “Village People,” but more importantly he was one of the owners of the copyrights to the Village People works. In its declaratory judgment complaint, plaintiff Scorpio Music, S.A. claims that he had been hired, by way of an “Adaptation Agreement
,” to “translate the lyrics of and/or create new lyrics for certain musical compositions which were owned and published in France by Scorpio.” These works included “Y.M.C.A.,” “I’m a Cruiser,” “Hot Cop,” “Ups and Downs,” “My Roomate,” (sic) and “The Woman.” (Why do I feel like I was just typing the names of gay porno flicks?) In January, 2011, Willis served a “Notice of Termination
” on Scorpio, et al., terminating the Adaptation Agreement. In July, 2011 Scorpio filed the DJ, claiming that Willis didn’t have the right to terminate.
Scorpio’s theory was a stretch. Willis was only a joint owner of the copyrights, along with two other authors, so Scorpio’s theory was that a majority of the authors who transferred their interest must join in the termination. Section 203 says this about who may terminate:
(1) In the case of a grant executed by one author, termination of the grant may be effected by that author …. In the case of a grant executed by two or more authors of a joint work, termination of the grant may be effected by a majority of the authors who executed it ….
Scorpio’s fundamental flaw? While there were joint owners of the copyright, in this case each executed separate grants of their rights, and the language of 203 contemplated that possibility:
When referring to a grant executed by two or more authors of a joint work, section 203(a)(1) refers to a “grant” in the singular, not “grants.” Thus, under the plain meaning of the statute, if two or more joint authors join in a grant of their copyright interests, a majority of the authors is necessary to terminate the grant. If, however, a single joint author enters into a grant of his copyright interest, that author alone can terminate his grant.
The court pointed out it wouldn’t make sense to treat multiple grants as one, because then there would be multiple dates of execution so the date for termination wouldn’t be known.
The case isn’t over, though; the court is allowing Scorpio to amend its complaint to ask the court to determine what Willis’ share of the copyright is. And query what Willis can do with his regained ownership interest. The complaint says the termination is only for the copyright to lyrics, not to either the musical composition or the sound recordings of the songs. Willis says
that he will be a “different kind of rightsholder,” but his aren’t the only rights needed to use the works.
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