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It Might Be Happy After All

When you gather a few friends in restaurant to celebrate a birthday, the server might take note of the celebration and arrange for the establishment to provide a small candle-lit dessert for the birthday-girl/boy.  It’s a thoughtful gesture.
The wait-staff might also serenade the party, standing beside your table screaming some raucous, utterly unintelligible birthday chant that sounds like a soccer-cheer/hip-hop mutation.  Which begs the question, “Why not just sing Happy Birthday?”
Two words: Copyright Infringement.
According to a CNNMoney article by Chris Isidore, “Warner/Chappell Music claims to own the copyright to the 120-year old, 16-word song that is widely credited with being the best known piece of music in the English language. That means anyone who performs the song publicly risks a $150,000 fine if they don't agree to pay a fee to the music group.”
We are not one to be overtly appreciative of lawyers, however . . . thanks to a lawsuit recently filed in New York, a challenge is being leveled by Good Morning To You Productions in an effort to return the song to the public domain.
Who knows, maybe someday we can get actually America singing in public again . . . one birthday celebration at a time.
READ the CNNMoney article and watch a CNN report video.
on June 18, 2013 3:45am
Doesn't copyright expire after 75 years?  I just don't understand this....and the music publishing industry wonders why it's in trouble.  Hmmm...anyone else out there think that this borders on the insanely dumb?  Hey, guess what?  How many churches have sung "Happy Birthday" to their pastor or some minister or important person in the place?  (boy, what a windfall THAT'd be - $150,000 times 300 people - does Warner/Chappell honestly think they'd be able to collect that?)  And what's public?  If I do it in the back yard of my home, does that make it "public"?  In spite of the fact it's done on my property, it's out there for the neighbors to hear - hence, that'd satisfy a number of definitions of "public."  Does Warner/Chappell think that they're going to get oodles of royalties from the song?  C'mon, Warner/Chappell - maybe it's time to let this one get out there - you don't have a hope in you-know-where of getting royalties on this one.  And I strongly suspect that if it ever came to court, the jury, the assembled ears, and the judge him/herself might laugh it right out of the courtroom.  This is ridiculous.  What a great way to come up with a death knell for a beloved song.  Ugh.  Talk about the marketplace controlling the joy of artistic expression.
on June 18, 2013 1:16pm
Actually, CNN isn' reporting the whole story, which is readily available on a quick Google search, but I happen to know it because I was a Suzuki method piano teacher. The publisher chosen by Suzuki to make his materials available in the States was Summy-Birchard, also known as Birchtree Group, which was a small music publishing house started by Clarence Birchard in Boston in 1901 to publish music education materials and later purchased by Charles Summy in Chicago in 1957.  One of their best-sellers in the early days was Happy Birthday to You, a new set of words to a familiar children's song, Good Morning to You, written by two sisters who were early childhood educators in Kentucky in the late 1800s.  In the Suzuki method circles, Birchtree/Summy-Birchard was regarded as a small music education publisher with an interesting history, but there did not seem to be any attention paid to the financial implications of owning the Happy Birthday copyright.
When Summy-Birchard was sold to Warner/Chappell in 1988, Warner realized that they now held the copyright to the most-performed song in the English language and started finding ways to take advantage of this. According to the CNN story, Warner/Chappell now makes $2 million a year in Birthday royalities.
Meanwhile, some of the other imprints owned by Summy-Birchard have been absorbed by Alfred and Boosey&Hawkes, including the Suzuki method materials.
According to a article: "The Chicago-based music publisher Clayton F. Summy Company, working with Jessica Hill, published and copyrighted "Happy Birthday" in 1935. Under the laws in effect at the time, the Hills' copyright would have expired after one 28-year term and a renewal of similar length, falling into public domain by 1991. However, the Copyright Act of 1976 extended the term of copyright protection to 75 years from date of publication, and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 added another 20 years, so under current law the copyright protection of "Happy Birthday" will remain intact until at least 2030."
Apparently this is currently in the news because the producers of a documentary about the song are objecting to the royalties and want to bring a class action suit against Warner/Chappell to release the song into the public domain.
The legal action really opens up a Pandora's box of questions about copyright, ownership, and the collection of royalties. If it were a small company that relied on its royalty collections of Happy Birthday to stay in business and print other valued music education materials, would there be such a backlash? Is Warner just defending their right to collect royalties on their properties, as they would for any other publication they own, or are they unfairly extorting royalties from public organizations? Does the size of the Warner conglomerate have anything to do with the reaction in the news media? Does it matter? If Warner's does release the song into the public domain, would that make other publishers vulnerable to similar legal action for similar properties (eg. Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)?
It will be an interesting story to follow, but I think we're going to be hearing "Happy Happy Birthday, from all of us to you, we wish it was our birthday, so we could party too! Woo!" at the local neighborhood casual restaurant for years yet.