Law: 'Funkytown' goes to court
Funkytown, the dance-happy destination extolled in Minneapolis songwriter Steve Greenberg’s 1980 disco smash, is a mythical place. But there is nothing mythical about the revenue the song has earned for Greenberg, and even more so its publisher, Universal Music Group.
In 1976, U.S. Congress adjusted copyright laws, extending the copyright term, but giving authors the potential benefits of the latter stages of this term by sending out terminations 35 years after first publishing. Because the legislation went into effect in 1978, 2013 will be the first year musicians can bring about a termination.
Last year, Minneapolis attorney Ken Abdo filed the first “termination of transfer of copyright” with the U.S. Copyright Office, putting Universal on notice that Greenberg intends to terminate his prior transfer to Universal of his copyright interest in all recordings (including "Funkytown"). Other artists have since followed suit.
In response to Abdo’s filing, “the record companies have publicly been very quiet; we've received no direct response to our notice of termination,” he says. “We suspect that there are private conversations going on between record companies and certain key artists with the aim to renegotiate the recording and distribution agreements—so that record companies can retain, if not ownership, at least administrative control.
“Even if an artist renegotiated with a record company, the result is still going to create much bigger participation for the artists,” Abdo explains. “So it is a meaningful difference.”
It would be difficult to place a monetary value on the rights to “Funkytown,” Abdo notes. ”Different songs have different values. ‘Funkytown’ has remained alive internationally, on radio (more than 2 million plays) and as licensed in films and commercials. It also represents the end of the disco era, so it has that special position in the popular music lexicon.
“If and when Universal declines to revert the copyright to Steven in 2015, we may file a lawsuit,” Abdo says.
Does Abdo believe the music copyright matter will have an impact on the intellectual property ownership rights in other industries?
“Wherever the U.S. copyright law has an application, the termination right will have an impact. It is going to reverberate through many media. The music industry always seems to be at the forefront of these issues.”