If you want to read an article about an important development in copyright news, but you don’t want to be distracted by a lot of “facts” and such, enjoy this piece in the New York Times about Victor Willis, formerly of the Village People. You’ll learn next to nothing! And that’s too bad.
Rumor has had it for some time that the Times is written at an eighth-grade reading level. I went to eighth grade. I can read and understand this Times article. What I can’t understand is why the piece links to such things as an interview with a French record producer, but not to such things as the court decision that informs the news purportedly being reported: to wit, that Mr. Willis is the first musician to successfully reclaim, under Section 203 of the Copyright Act, his rights in and to musical compositions transferred some 35 years ago. Indeed, I had to read the article several times before I realized that there has in fact been a court decision. And I successfully completed eighth grade!
Fortunately, I am something of an amateur detective, and there are some clues in the Times piece. The name of a party (likely not the plaintiff, because the way these termination cases are coming to court is that the creators of the works at issue are sending termination notices to the transferees, and then the transferees are consequently filing declaratory judgment actions) is one—Victor Willis, the “police officer” of the Village People. (Now you get the “cop” joke, yes?) Also, the article mentions “Federal District Court in Los Angeles.” So to PACER I go… ah, but first to a map of California, because I honestly do not know where in the state L.A. is. No, I’m not kidding. I’m a New Yorker. Turns out, Los Angeles is in the Central District, and… well, this is interesting:
There is no such case in the Central District of California, according to PACER. No case under the name of Victor Willis, nor the entities to which he assigned his rights years ago (and from which he has reportedly reclaimed them), Scorpio Music S.A. and Can’t Stop Productions, Inc. (neither mentioned in the Times piece). But what’s this? Scorpio Music S.A. et al v. Willis… in the Southern District of California (San Diego)? And doesn’t the Times piece mention that Mr. Willis spoke to the Times by telephone “from his home in Southern California”? Also, the photo accompanying the piece shows Mr. Willis “in downtown San Diego.” Okay, so maybe the Times made a simple mistake, and the case was heard in “Federal District Court in San Diego.” (This leads to the obvious question—sing it with me: “Why, NYT?”)
No harm, no foul. We found the docket for the case. So we just scroll to the bottom and find… that the last docket entry is dated July 8, 2013, and it is a minute order rescheduling a settlement conference from 7/12/2013 at 10:00 AM to 10/9/2013 at 10:00 AM. And that’s it. Nothing further. No decision. No motion for summary judgment. There had been, months earlier, a motion for partial summary judgment, but it was denied. So just what is the Times reporting? Where is this decision?
The Times did not imagine a decision. “In an e-mail he sent from Europe, Mr. Levy [a lawyer for the defendants]… [wrote:] “Since an appeal of the court’s decision permitting such reversion has yet to be taken, it is far from certain that Mr. Willis will, at the end of the day, ever gain control over any share of the copyrights in the disputed songs.” A lawyer for the defendants acknowledged the existence of an decision… but PACER seems to tell us that nothing has happened since a settlement conference was rescheduled from July to October… back in July. And there’s no mention of a transfer to another district…. Curiouser and curiouser.
Oh, wait a tick. I think I’ve figured it out.
In May of last year the court (indeed, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California) dismissed the complaint of the record companies for failure to state a claim, essentially ruling Willis’s termination notices valid. (The court allowed the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint to address other issues, which explains why the case continued.)
So why is the Times reporting, on September 10, 2013, about a decision from May 7, 2012? Because—I’m guessing—this is the year (and maybe this is the month?) that Willis’s termination notices actually take effect.
But the Times piece says nothing to that effect. Rather, the Times piece gives the impression—it certainly gave me the impression—that something exciting had just happened! Like, this week! It had not, though. Thanks for nothing, New York Times.