The Happy Birthday Copyright Saga: Generating Millions On A Copyright That May Not Exist

from the but-would-anyone-test-it-in-court? dept

In the past we've joked about the (supposed) fact that the song "Happy Birthday" remains under copyright, due to a copyright originally held by sisters Mildred and Patti Hill, the claimed original authors of the song. However, William Patry points us to a fascinatingly detailed research paper into questions surrounding the copyright. What comes out of it is pretty strong evidence that the copyright is not valid -- but it's never gotten far enough in court to have a decision rendered. Plus, it sounds like many aspects of the "history" of the song really appear to be close to a myth.

The sisters in question may have written the melody, but they almost definitely did not write the lyrics (their original copyright was on a different set of lyrics, "Good Morning to All"). As for the melody, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it was actually taken from a series of extremely similar songs. So, there's a good chance they wrote neither the melody nor the lyrics. Also, there are numerous questions concerning whether or not the copyright holders correctly followed the various rules required of copyright holders at the time, suggesting that even if there were a legal copyright at some point, it's long since expired. And, of course, there's even some evidence to suggest less-than-legal tactics involved with transferring around some of the interest in the song. Amazingly, however, the legitimacy of the copyright has never been determined in court, and it now generates over $2 million per year. Over 1% of the money that ASCAP distributes to songwriters is for this one song, even though it may not be legitimate. Somehow, I doubt this is what the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  •  
    identicon
    eleete, May 9th, 2008 @ 5:15am

    Dead and Gone

    Too bad the original framers are not with us any longer, with the PRO IP bill, doesn't seem to matter what the original framers wanted, the new Congress will see to it that the industries get THEIR interpretation of IP Laws.

    e

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Overcast, May 9th, 2008 @ 5:51am

    All Hail the NEW WORLD ORDER!!!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Ferd, May 9th, 2008 @ 5:52am

    The Cure

    Constipitution? What the heck is that? Sounds like a disease. Hey! Let's treat that disease with free universal health care! And pay for it by capping income on all evil job creating corporations and giving the profits to the efficient, benevolent, always-right Federal Govmint.

    Constipitution... if its not a disease, its got to be something equally stupid advocated by those rascally Conservatives.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      identicon
      Liberal, yes., May 9th, 2008 @ 6:41am

      Re: The Cure

      Oh, yeah, because those evil job creating corporations really need those extra millions to top their billions, no?

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2008 @ 7:16am

        Re: Re: The Cure

        Of course they need those extra millions... they found a niche... they filled it... they made money from it...

        Of course, since most people don't understand that logic, let's put it into terms they do understand.

        Imagine that you work as a waiter/waitress. You work your butt off to make sure your section gets the best service ever. Do you expect a tip? Do you expect a good tip or is $1 for a $30 meal enough?

        If you feel these companies do not "need" the extra money, then do you "need" the extra money from the tip?

        Sure it is a scaled down example but the concept is the same.

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Shaun, May 9th, 2008 @ 7:25am

          Re: Re: Re: The Cure

          Imagine that you work as a waiter/waitress. You work your butt off to make sure your section gets the best service ever. Do you expect a tip? Do you expect a good tip or is $1 for a $30 meal enough?

          WTF is with the US and tips? Can't people just get paid a proper wage by their employers instead of having to rely on tips to supplement their wage?

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            Euro Waitress, May 9th, 2008 @ 8:05am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

            WTF is with (insert Euro country) and Value Added Tax...

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            Zaide, May 9th, 2008 @ 9:11am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

            Shaun, you really don't care about quality service, do you? In fact, you're probably some shitty waiter that feels just showing up entitles you to money. Sure, some people are assholes and don't understand why tips are necessary (ie you), but the rest of us like rewarding those that do their job well. Besides, it's still going to come out of your pocket, because the restaurant would raise the cost of the food to make up the difference in wage vs cost. With the current system, only the worthy get paid a good wage. Why is that you think that we should all get the same pay regardless of work quality?

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            •  
              identicon
              dorpass, May 9th, 2008 @ 9:35am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

              Why is that you think that we should all get the same pay regardless of work quality?
              Zaide, that's a moronic statement. Waiters don't get paid the same whether or not they count on tips, so what you are saying has no relevance to this conversation or real world. Get a grip, just because the manager in your restaurant abused you, doesn't mean all other waiters suck.

               

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              •  
                identicon
                Spectere, May 9th, 2008 @ 10:06am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

                dorpass, what are you talking about? Zaide didn't imply that in the slightest.

                 

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                •  
                  identicon
                  dorpass, May 9th, 2008 @ 10:38am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

                  Spectere, let me quote this again for you

                  Why is that you think that we should all get the same pay regardless of work quality?

                  That's from Zaide. No one before him said anything of the kind. He implies that if there are no systematic tips, then everyone will be paid equally regardless of their work quality.

                   

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            Rick Shur, Mar 25th, 2013 @ 1:56pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

            We love tipping. It gives us an opportunity to make another person happy by over-tipping, or remorseful, by stiffing. It's the closest we ever get to playing God.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, May 9th, 2008 @ 7:25am

          Re: Re: Re: The Cure

          You are sick with little understanding what constitutes a scam.

          If someone charges you rent to use something they do not own then they are scamming ie stealing from you.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          •  
            identicon
            niftyswell, May 9th, 2008 @ 8:21am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

            I prefer a waiter expecting a tip for service. After spending 20 minutes waiting for a beer and another half hour waiting for someone to take my order every time I travel to Europe, I prefer to reward performance and to have someone held accountable when their work ethic is crap.

             

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            •  
              identicon
              SailorRipley, May 9th, 2008 @ 12:49pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

              I don't know where you go every time you travel to Europe, but I've lived there most of my life and been to many countries and NEVER, not even in a big restaurant during dinner rush, or any bar at any time, have I had to wait 20 mins for a drink or (another) half hour for someone to take my order...

              either you are full of it, or you just naturally inspire people to not want to serve you

               

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              •  
                identicon
                SailorMoon, May 9th, 2008 @ 1:27pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Cure

                Hey SailorRipley, I think you are the one full of it. Most low-to-mid budget restaurants in Europe take a long time to take an order. May be in your small village in Croatia your mom served you without a wait, but in the rest of Europe, you gotta wait.

                 

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          DCX2, May 9th, 2008 @ 10:50am

          Re: Re: Re: The Cure

          Of course they need those extra millions... they found a niche... they filled it... they made money from it...

          Of course, since most people don't understand that logic, let's put it into terms they do understand.


          I have no problem understanding that logic. The logic I have a problem understanding is how someone can justify a hundred million dollars in personal income (salary, bonus, compensation, etc) when a hundred million dollars can support over 2,000 median household families.

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Jay Chong, Jun 27th, 2013 @ 9:58pm

          Re: Re: Re: The Cure

          Except that the company in this case has not filled any niche. Warner Music didn't write the song. They didn't write the tune. They didn't even publish the song! Literally all they've done since they acquired the copyright back in 1988 is collect licensing fees.

          And the only reason they can collect licensing fees is because of a law passed by Congress. Its the definition of corporate welfare.It'd be like a deadbeat waiter collecting tips after all the other waiters/waitresses have done all the hard work and the reason the deadbeat gets away with it is because the deadbeat is friendly with the boss. How is that fair? http://lawblog.legalmatch.com/2013/06

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Ferd, May 9th, 2008 @ 7:34am

    Re: The Liberal Cure to our Founding Principles

    "A wise and frugal government, which shall leave men free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor and bread it has earned - this is the sum of good government."

    "Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

    "I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them."

    "My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government."

    "The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not."

    "To compel a man to subsidize with his taxes the propagation of ideas which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

    Thomas Jefferson

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Kev, May 9th, 2008 @ 7:53am

    Re: Founding Principles

    The founding fathers had the right ideas and it hurts me to think that we are slowly destroying what they created. It is an erosion of the core principles of our freedom that comes from laziness and ignorance. We don't need a government to tell us to be honest, generous or how to parent we simply need to focus on the principles our country was based on and strive to fulfill them .

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 11th, 2008 @ 1:05am

    I think I must be missing something here... how the heck does the crappy Happy Birthday song generate $2 million a year? Where in the world is that money coming from?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    •  
      icon
      Mike (profile), May 11th, 2008 @ 1:54pm

      Re:

      I think I must be missing something here... how the heck does the crappy Happy Birthday song generate $2 million a year? Where in the world is that money coming from?

      Any restaurant, movie, play or any other type of public performance needs to pay to license the song.

       

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      •  
        identicon
        Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2008 @ 11:37am

        Re: Re:

        So then shouldn't everybody in america have to pay a licensing fee? Everyone has a birthday and that song is typically sung at said birthday? and once everyone at said party begins singing, doesn't that constitute a public performance?

         

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        •  
          identicon
          Lars Ulrich, Jun 2nd, 2008 @ 1:32pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yeah, but those darned cheap kiddies won't pony up the money. They're literally stealing from us. How am I supposed to afford a gold bar for my swimming pool if these brats are going to keep on singing "Happy Birthday" without paying ASCAP their fees? Maybe me and James Hetfield should start crashing their parties and taking the fees out of the presents. That would teach them!

           

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  •  
    identicon
    2k.lime, Jul 13th, 2008 @ 1:00am

    RE; 'THE GREAT HAPPY BIRTHDAY REBATE DEBATE'

    HI ALL!

    Funny, I should have stumbled onto this site...

    Truthfully, I have been thinking to myself all the same things you've all

    mentioned about the 'Happy Birthday' song, for months now...

    No idea why, really?

    Just 1 of those 'thought weasels' that get stuck in your brain, for no apparent reason!

    Had heard a long while ago about the 100 YR patent having run out, finally.

    COWARD?

    You are the only one I ever have heard of who has EVER put it exactly as I have always thought of it!

    I LOATHE that song &, have NEVER sung it even once to anyone,

    &, have always cringed when it was sung to me!

    SO, here's the 'REBATE DEBATE' part...

    I WANT a REBATE for MY sensibility!

    WHO DO I CONTACT?

    The 'ASCAP'S'

    Anyone have an address for these guy's?

    Regards,

    Diane,
    d ~~~

    PS;

    I don't know much technical workings of computers yet; but, I catch on fairly fast...

    I make quite a few mistakes in the tech parts so you can feel free to

    tell me, 'thanks but, go away!'

    ie; I'm not even too sure what format to post this in...

    well, I've warned you @ least but, I found you all to be interesting, so far :)

    I CAN TALK &, OPINE THOUGH...

    I'M JUST STARTING TO LEARN ON A MINI MAC I JUST GOT SO,

    THE CHANGES ARE THROWING ME SOME WHAT AS WELL, FROM THAT!

    MY bloody spell check has gone missing so I'm currently looking for where

    it's gone off to?

    The caps lock is due to eye surgery so I"M NOT SHOUTING!

    Let me know how the audition went?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This