In May 2012, original Village People singer-songwriter Victor Willis won a case before a California federal judge allowing him terminate the licence of his share of the group’s songs – he could regain ownership of his own copyrights. As a result, the royalty payments that Willis received from music publishers were due to increase from a 12-20 percent rate. But exactly how much did he get? Whilst
Willis contends he co-authored the songs with just Jacques Morali and therefore is entitled to a 50 percent share but Scorpio Music and Can’t Stop Productions, the publishers, point to copyright registrations indicating a third author, Henri Belolo. It’s their contention that the songs were originally French and then adapted by Willis, who in turn says Belolo didn’t have much to do with the songs in question. The music publishers only believe Willis is entitled to a 33 percent share.
Among the witnesses scheduled to testify on behalf of Willis is his ex-wife Phylicia Rashad, who is famous for playing Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. She is expected to say that she witnessed Willis writing many of the songs at their home and they were never adapted from a prior existing French song. Also being called as plaintiff witnesses are Hope Grossbard, Belolo’s former secretary, to testify about the drafting of various agreements and copyright filings, as well as Russell Dabney, a drummer in the Village People studio band. The defendant’s star witness is Felipe Rose, a founding member of The Village People, who is scheduled to testify that he saw Belolo and Morali working together to create “Y.M.C.A.” and other songs. To rebut this, Willis will have his new wife Karen take the stand to testify that she has compiled an extensive archive of Rose’s various interviews, and he never before identified Belolo as a co-writer.
As the trial begins, there are a few matters that will have to be addressed by the judge. The biggest is whose burden it is to prove Belolo did or didn’t contribute to the creation of the songs. The publishers say that Willis, as plaintiff, carries the burden of disproving the writer credits contained on the copyright registration certificates. Willis, on the other hand, says that these certificates can’t be presumed to be truthful if there’s fraud involved and “at the best, the introduction of those certificates will simply place the ball in Mr. Willis’ court to rebut the factual statements contained in them.”
Willis’ side previously estimated a loss of $30 million from the claim that his iconic songs are adapted from original French songs.