June 23, 2013
The Song That No One Can Sing Well
We hear it every year. We sing it multiple times a year to others. We all sing off key and pretty badly, yet enjoy every second of it. It is the most well-known song in the English language. It is a 16-word song that brings with it many smiles…and now it is in the midst of controversy. What is it? Well, the ‘Happy Birthday’ song of course. As CNN Money explains, the ‘Happy Birthday’ song is the topic of a current lawsuit.
Who are the parties involved in the lawsuit? The two sides are Good Morning to You, a production company making a documentary about the song, and Warner/Chappell Music, the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group that claims to own the copyrights to over more than one million songs, including ‘Happy Birthday.’
Why is such a simple song, something that has been sung for over a century (for real), the focus of the legal case? Well, because it is so popular and is used by many individuals and groups, including tv shows, movies, and plays. Yep, you got it. Its popularity and beloved recognition has brought it to the legal forefront.
The good news is that Warner/Chappell does not go after small family groups who sing happy birthday to each other in public, although it claims it can. Instead, the company focuses on the big money makers and the easier targets, such as TV shows and movies.
So, what is the history of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song?
Let’s look to the CNN Money article for answers:
“According to the suit, the song was written by Mildred and Patty Hill and sold to Clayton Summy in 1893 for 10% of the retail sales of the sheet music. A company that Summy founded was eventually purchased by Warner Music Group in 1998, according to the suit. It argues that if Warner/Chappell owns any copyright, it’s on a very limited piano arrangement published in 1935, not on the song itself.
And it is seeking class action status to have Warner/Chappell return all of the millions in fees it has collected. The suit argues that Warner/Chappell collects more than $2 million a year in copyright fees on ‘Happy Birthday.””
One expert on the history of the song, Robert Brauneis, law professor at George Washington University, says that the copyright actually ended in 1963, but that was still 50 years ago. According to the Public Domain Information Project website, musical works published before 1923 have reached their maximum copyright protection of 75 years and thus are in the public domain. If the song was indeed published in 1893, which seems to be the case, then the copyright has ended and none have to pay royalty fees to Warner/Chappell because it is now a part of public domain access.
Why, then, have groups and companies been paying the copyright fees to Warner/Chappell? Two reasons: 1) it is a relatively cheap royalty fee; and 2) no one has yet challenged the company…that is until now with the Good Morning to You production company.
Only time will tell what happens here. The two major possibilities are either we will all be able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ without worrying about having to pay royalty fees or Warner/Chappell will be able to continue collecting the fees. Maybe, the lawsuit will come up with something else, but it is not likely. It should be an interesting case regardless.
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