29 June, 2013

Happy Birthday to Us All? The Challenge Over the Well-Known Birthday Song

If there ever has been a song that most people on Earth have heard, it's the one sang in celebration of one's birthday; Happy Birthday to You. The copyright owners of the song, Warner/Chappell Music, have kept the rights in a tight grip, charging as much as $1500 dollars for a single use of the song, but recently the rights to the song have come into question.

In a recent court filing, Jennifer Nelson, an American film-maker, is seeking for the song to be declared to being in the public domain (and having been there since the 1920s) as opposed to under the ownership of Warner/Chappell. If the song were to be declared to being in the public domain, anyone and everyone could be free to use it as they wish.

Birthdays aren't always so happy
The song's origin is in the old folk song of 'Good Morning to All', published as far back as 1893.The rights were subsequently bought by several entities, originally from the authors Patty and Mildred Hill, ending up with Warner/Chappell in 1988. The song brings in 2 million dollars per year for the owners through licensing fees.

Should the courts not make the declaration being sought, the copyright for the song should end sometime in 2016 in Europe, due to the passing of Patty Hill in 1946 and copyright terms extending to 70 years after the death of the last author of the work. Should a European nation have a longer period, the changes made under European Union legislation will not affect that period and the song will enjoy copyright protection for that extended period. In the United States the song's copyright should have expired in 1991, however the period was extended twice; initially by the Copyright Act of 1976 and further by the Copyright Term Extension Act and protection should therefore extend till 2030.

What Jennifer Nelson is arguing in her case is that the song belongs to everyone, and should not be owned by any entity. When thinking of the important role the song plays in a very simple event, the celebration of someone's birthday and the commonality of the song's use, she could have a solid case. Unlike trade marks, copyright doesn't face the effects of genericization, where the trade mark has become eponymous with the product it represents - in other words the name has become intrinsically what most products in that category are called. Even if a song is deemed to being incredibly common or 'everyone's', it is still protected by copyright.

With the great extensions of American copyright terms and the strict nature of copyright as a means to protect your intellectual property, I have my doubts about the song being in the public domain. Albeit not the exact same case, the popularity or commonality of a book doesn't automatically place it out of strict protection and into the free use of the public, so what would make a song any different?

Source: Thomson Reuters

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