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.

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Comments on “The Happy Birthday Copyright Saga: Generating Millions On A Copyright That May Not Exist”

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26 Comments
Ferd says:

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.

Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Shaun says:

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?

Zaide says:

Re: Re: Re:2 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?

dorpass says:

Re: Re: Re:3 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.

dorpass says:

Re: Re: Re:5 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.

niftyswell says:

Re: Re: Re:2 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.

SailorRipley says:

Re: Re: Re:3 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

DCX2 says:

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.

Ferd says:

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

Kev says:

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 .

Lars Ulrich says:

Re: 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!

2k.lime says:

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?

Jay Chong says:

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

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