On September 15, 2015, the Southern District of California awarded over $500,000 in attorney’s fees to a songwriter who successfully prevailed on his right to terminate grants of copyright under 17 U.S.C. § 203 because awarding fees would encourage authors to assert their rights to regain their copyright interests. Victor Willis (“Willis”) is a songwriter and an original member of the band the Village People. Between 1977 and 1979, Willis transferred his copyright in certain musical compositions to Can’t Stop Productions, Inc. (“Can’t Stop”). The copyright registrations credited Willis as being one of several writers. The works included songs such as “YMCA”, “In the Navy” and “Macho Man.”
In January 2011, Willis served Can’t Stop and Scorpio Music S.A. (“Scorpio”) with a notice of termination of his grants of copyright with respect to the compositions. In July 2011, Can’t Stop and Scorpio (collectively “Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit challenging the validity of the notice of termination and sought a judgment declaring that Willis had no right, title or interest in the copyrights to the compositions, requiring Willis to withdraw the notice of termination and enjoining Willis from making any claims to copyright in the compositions.
In May 2012, the Court granted Willis’s motion to dismiss. In June 2012, Can’t Stop and Scorpio filed an amended complaint seeking a judicial determination regarding the percentage of interest in the copyrights at issue that Willis could recover upon termination. Following three years of subsequent litigation, the Court held that Willis recaptured 50% of the U.S. copyright in 13 of the compositions at issue and recaptured 33.3% of the U.S. Copyright in 11 of the compositions at issue.
Willis sought an award of $527,238.84 in attorney’s fees as the prevailing party. The Court noted that Plaintiffs did not act frivolously or with an improper motive and there was no basis to find that the Plaintiff made objectively unreasonable factual or legal arguments. However, “the most important factor in determining whether to award fees is whether an award would further the purposes of the Copyright Act.” Section 203, providing for the transfers of copyrights, was designed to “safeguard authors against unremunerative transfers” and address “the unequal bargaining position of authors, resulting in part from the impossibility of determining a work’s value until it has been exploited.”
The Court noted that Willis was an author who incurred significant legal fees in trying to get back what he transferred to Plaintiffs, who had superior bargaining power. Thus, an award of attorney’s fees was justified to encourage authors to assert their rights to regain their copyright interests.