06 October, 2015

No Cause for Celebration - Happy Birthday To You Deemed to be Out of Copyright

Birthdays are a peculiar phenomenon when fully dissected and thought through, yet they evoke an image of youthful bliss and happiness, along with often copious amounts of presents and sugary foods. Almost every language and culture celebrates birthdays (bar some religions etc.), and wishing someone a happy birthday can be as colorful and varied as the cultures themselves. A big part of Western birthday traditions is the song "Happy Birthday to You" (and other regional variants thereof), which has been held under lock and key by Warner/Chappel Music, and as discussed over two years ago on this very blog, the saga challenging its copyright protection has been a long and arduous one. The case has since reached its newest milestone, which will be cause for celebration for many, and a loss for the few.

For the uninitiated, the case of Rupa Marya v Warner/Chapell Music Inc dealt with the aforementioned song "Happy Birthday to You", which was created by the Hill sisters, Mildred and Patty, in the late 1800s (although only in melody). Their original song, "Good Morning to All", featured the melody we associate with the above song, however the lyrics were only changed some time after the publication of Good Morning to All in a collection of songs by Clayton Summy, who had acquired the rights to the song in the 1890s. The author of the lyrics to Happy Birthday to You is largely unknown. Rupa Marya, as a part of a class-action lawsuit, asserted that Warner/Chappell did not own the copyright in the song, and that "...they should be compelled to return the “millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees” they have collected by wrongfully asserting copyright ownership in the Happy Birthday lyrics".

The first consideration for the District Court for the District of Central California was whether the copyright in the lyrics to the song actually vested in Warner/Chappell. As the acquisition and transfer of the rights to Good Morning to All, and the creation of the lyrics to the derivative work Happy Birthday, remained unclear, the Court had to discern whether the rights to the work vested in their alleged owner (i.e. who wrote the song Happy Birthday), and if so, whether they were correctly assigned onwards affording Warner/Chappell enforceable rights to the song.

Warner/Chappell had very little to celebrate after the decision
In determining the ultimate author of the song, judge King saw that, even though claiming so under oath in a deposition, Patty Hill had not written the lyrics, as several other authors either directly or indirectly had claimed to have done so, and very little evidence illustrated that Patty Hill had concretely written them. Also, under old US law, an author could lose their rights in a word if they publish it before seeking proper registration or publishing it without proper notice, effectively forfeiting their federal and state common law rights. Judge King saw that, in the absence of authorized publication of the song, the defendant had not divested their rights through publication. Although claimed, the court did not find that the lyrics had been abandoned by Patty Hill, even though evidence was put forth to this effect, as the hearsay evidence provided was non-conclusive. As no author was clear, the motion was denied and the Court moved onto the question on ownership of the rights.

The main focus of the case was then the transfer of the rights to Mr. Summy by the Hill sisters in 1934. Through two separate agreements, neither of which has survived from their drafting in the 1930s, the defendant alleged that it had indeed transferred the rights to the lyrics to Mr. Summy. The Court rejected their arguments, and saw that the only transference that had occurred was for the piano melody of the song Good Morning to All, with no reference to the lyrics or the derivative work Happy Birthday to You being a part of either agreement. Judge King therefore concluded that the rights to the lyrics for the song Happy Birthday to You had not been transferred to Mr. Summy, and ultimately to Warner/Chappell Music. The case leave the ownership of the copyright for the song in doubt, potentially causing for the song to fall into the public domain before the end of its copyright term.

The case shows an important facet of copyright and intellectual property, the importance of the chain of evidence. Should there have been concrete provenance of a transfer of rights, the rights in the lyrics to Happy Birthday would have vested in Warner/Chappell Music. In the end, the uncertainty in evidence and the inception of the lyrics to the song left them with very little recourse to protect their rights, and lost them as a result. No repayment of license fees was discussed by judge King; a point that might be contested in court some time in the future. Whether Warner/Chappell will appeal remains to be seen, but this writer doubts the likelihood of this.

Source: The Guardian

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