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.