'Funkytown' songwriter leads copyright fight against music industry

Greenberg and Abdo
Musician Steve Greenberg and attorney Ken Abdo. Abdo is considered one of the nations top music copyright lawyers. He is filing a motion to allow Greenberg to regain the copyright for his worldwide hit "Funkytown."
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

An until now obscure provision in American copyright law could stir up a massive legal battle between the music industry and a St. Louis Park songwriter who created one of Minnesota's best known musical exports (and, no, we're not talking about Prince).

When it was released in 1980, Steven Greenberg's "Funkytown" gave false hope to the platform shoe-wearing, leisure suit-loving, mirror ball-reflected disco party crowd, acting like a defibrillator on a dying trend. But "Funkytown" was such a mega-hit, it transcended disco.

"Funkytown" drove huge sales for the Lipps Inc. record, "Mouth to Mouth" when it first came out.

Since then, Greenberg said it's been used in TV shows, movies, commercials, Broadway productions, an original play in Sweden and a modernized "Taming of the Shrew" in Australia. It's even been institutionalized.

"I get paid for "Funkytown" being in a couple museums," he said.

In terms of radio airplay, the song is in select company.

"Something like the song "Yesterday" by the Beatles has had 7 million performances," he said. "And that's like the most performed song ever. And I think "Funkytown" is getting close to two million. So, not bad."

Add up the royalties and licensing fees "Funkytown" has generated over the years, one can imagine the financial windfall it has provided for Greenberg, who prefers to leave it to your imagination.

Steve Greenberg
Steve Greenberg created a worldwide hit with "Funkytown," and says it continues to make money for him. However he is hoping to regain control of the copyright for the song as a result of the first filing in the nation under a federal law passed in the 1970s.
MPR photo/Chris Roberts

"I really can't talk publicly about money and things like that, but it has been a great source of income for me," he said.

Even more so for Universal Music Group, which owns the copyright to the song. In fact, the lion's share of the funds generated by "Funkytown" has gone to Universal, Greenberg said.

But a 1976 amendment to the Copyright Act could reverse that relationship. The provision gives song authors the right to re-claim ownership of the song's copyright after 35 years. It applies to all recordings released since Jan. 1, 1978. Congress decided 35 years is enough time for a label to benefit from any riches a song has produced.

Greenberg, with the help of his Minneapolis attorney Ken Abdo, was the first songwriter in the country to file a "termination of transfer" notice with the U.S. Copyright office for "Funkytown." Under the provision, because the song was released in 1980, the copyright would revert from Universal to Greenberg in 2015. Then the entire equation would change, according to Abdo.

"If the recording company loses or reverts the copyright, it no longer has the entitlement to participate in the revenues generated from that copyright," he said.

Or, as Greenberg puts it:

"I'll then own my copyright and I'll be able to negotiate that with anyone I want, therefore giving me a much, much better royalty rate, licensing, you name it," he said. "I get just a much better deal all the way around. And I'd be very, very happy about that."

It will be another devastating blow to the music industry, which is still trying to recover from the effects of digitalization, Abdo said.

"If you can imagine having the vault of the catalog of major hit songs from 1978 on — and there are many — start reverting to the authors, that's going to eviscerate the economic core of many of these record companies, Abdo said. "It's life threatening to them."

"Funkytown" publisher, Universal Music Group didn't respond to requests for an interview, and a record label lobby group, the Recording Industry Association of America in Washington, declined to respond.

There are signs the music industry is girding for a legal fight. Among other things, representatives will most likely argue songwriters are essentially employees of their record companies, which would make everything they produce the intellectual property of their employers. Artists will contend they're independent contractors, and entitled to eventually assume ownership of what they created.

If the artists prevail, some songwriters will want complete control over the marketing and sale of their music. Others, like Greenberg, may let their labels continue to administer their song's copyright, but under the auspices of a renegotiated contract that is more beneficial to the artists. In addition, Greenberg believes a whole new industry may take shape.

"I think companies are going to pop up all around the country if this thing happens, and there already are companies I'm sure that do it: administer artists' copyright," Greenberg said. "They'll do it for a lot less, and who knows, maybe they'll do it better."

Regular music fans could be greatly affected too, Abdo said.

"This potentially changes the entire economic environment for the purchase of music," he said.

Exactly how it will change is unclear. Abdo declined to speculate on if the cost of music will go up or down. The question may be irrelevant to an entire younger generation which views music as free. In the last five to 10 years, Abdo said recorded music has not only become more disposable, it performs different functions in the economic marketplace.

"Because we're seeing now where music seems to be highly used, less valued, and a vehicle for other things," Abdo said. "A vehicle to promote live concerts, a vehicle for merchandise to be sold. A vehicle for celebrity, which is monetized."

Questions like these won't be answered until the issue of copyright ownership is decided, most likely in the courts. And Greenberg and his song, "Funkytown," are at the front of the battle.

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