Advertisers Can Finally Boogie Again With the Disco Hit Y.M.C.A.

Iconic Village People song lives on in licensing

It's been 38 years since it was written, 26 years since it was in the top 10 and four years since it became the center of a contentious international court battle. Now, the song that became a staple of the disco era, and an anthem for an entire generation of gay men, is back.

"This is huge," said Linda Smythe, publicist for songwriter Victor Willis. "Now that the fight is over, the song is once again available."

Yeah, OK, in case this doesn't quite sound like news, consider the tune: Village People's Y.M.C.A.—easily among the most appropriated pop songs in commercial history. The list of brands that have used the song reads like a Who's Who of consumer culture: Pepsi, Taco Bell, Hasbro, Microsoft, Google, Hallmark, Toyota and more.

But, since 2013, the song's been stuck in legal limbo, tying the hands of advertisers that wanted to license it and—not coincidentally—cutting off the royalty checks to the multiple parties sharing the rights to it. In fact, that's where all the trouble started.

In 2011, Village People front man and Y.M.C.A.'s co-writer Victor Willis (the traffic cop in the group) exercised reclaim of his copyright from his publishers since the 35-year statute of limitations had expired. Willis regained control of his copyright in 2013, but the matter wound up in court as a battle over writing credits and royalty percentages. 

That fight kept the tune out of reach for brand marketers, and Smythe said quite a few were turned away. "A lot of advertisers were trying to use it," she said. "We had to say it wasn't available."

But a few weeks ago, a jury awarded Willis 50 percent of future licensing royalties for the song, with his publisher Scorpio retaining the other half. Now, the song has its "For Rent" sign out once again.

Y.M.C.A. was written in 1977 by Village People's creator, French music producer Jacques Morali. The story goes that Randy Jones (Village People's cowboy) took Morali to New York's West 23rd Street Y.M.C.A., which was a bit of a rumpus room for gay men at the time. (Willis has since claimed the song is just about young black dudes hanging out, not young gay ones doing it.) In any case, Morali—who, like Jones, was gay—was apparently inspired, and began work on the melody that eventually became Y.M.C.A.

Willis, for his part, penned the song's lyrics, and is doubtless very glad he did. The song spent 26 weeks on the charts, topping out at No. 2 in February 1979. While Willis left Village People in 1985, he was reportedly earning $1 million a year in royalties from the song as recently as 2011, even with a smaller stake in the proceeds. (Back in 1979, the actual Young Men's Christian Association expressed its dismay over the unauthorized use of its trademarked name, but following an implied settlement whose circumstances are still unclear, the organization has since said it "celebrates" the song.")

Now, with a 50 percent stake, he'll doubtless earn much more. As group member David Hodo (the construction worker) put it in a 2008 interview: "The minute I heard 'Y.M.C.A' I knew we had something special. Because it sounded like a commercial."

Boy, did it. Pepsi's 1997 Super Bowl spot portrayed adolescent grizzly bears dancing to the tune. Smaller companies like WMS Gaming and Value Village have used it, too. Overseas, French gaming company Ubisoft used the song for its Just Dance series, and the Israeli company Yes HDTV featured an all-orthodox cast dancing to Y.M.C.A. in 2007. Most recently, the Minions performed the song at the close of the movie Despicable Me 2, which grossed more than $368 million domestically.

"Y.M.C.A. is just one of those songs," Smythe said. "It's a song that's ripe for products because it's fun. We're saying to advertisers, if you come up with a great ideas, chances are you'll be able to use the song."

For a price, of course.