It's Time For A New, Copyright-Free Happy Birthday Song, So Help Write One

from the out-with-the-old dept

As you may or may not know, Warner Chappell has claimed that the “most famous song in the world,” Happy Birthday To You, is covered by a copyright held by itself (which it purchased years back). The song generates a ridiculous amount of money per year (estimates say around $2 million) in licensing fees. Back in 2008, we pointed to a detailed academic paper that argues persuasively that the song is not subject to copyright, and should be in the public domain. A few years later, even more evidence was added, showing that the song is firmly in the public domain (and probably has been for over a century). The problem, of course, is that no one is willing to go up against a giant company like Warner to challenge the copyright.

So, perhaps there’s another solution? The folks at the Free Music Archive and WFMU are teaming up to host a “New Happy Birthday Song” contest, asking people to write their own song which they hope to use to replace the more controversial one. They’ve got a fantastic slate of judges including Jonathan Coulton, Ira Kaplan (from Yo La Tengo) and Larry Lessig among others. Also, they’ve put together this fun video of TV shows and movies trying to sing alternate songs to avoid being handed a bill:

Of course, if I had one complaint about the contest, it’s the choice of licenses they’re requiring for entries. They’ve picked Attribution 2.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0), which is a good and very permissive license — but I could see how even the attribution part becomes awkward here in some cases. If ever there were a case to support CC 0 licenses this seems like a good one. Yes, I could see how the “attribution” requirement might help make the concept slightly more viral, but I’m not sure if that’s enough of a benefit here.

Also, of course, this is definitely a cultural longshot. Convincing the world to switch Happy Birthday songs is, perhaps, the ultimate in quixotic goals. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a shot. So, if you ever wanted a chance to create a song that might, possibly replace the most popular song on the planet, now’s your chance.

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Comments on “It's Time For A New, Copyright-Free Happy Birthday Song, So Help Write One”

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DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It may be very undesirable to have it be copyright-free (eg, public domain).

The evil basterds(tm) can take a public domain work, incorporate into one of their own copyrighted works, and then sue anyone who uses the new song because it infringes their copyrighted work. Wrong yes. But who wants to stand up to them? Nobody.

Having the new song copyrighted and protected by a permissive license is better protection.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

CC-BY does not provide such protection. The Share-Alike licenses (CC-BY-SA, for example) afford the open licensing restriction on derivatives, but your scenario of “evil basterds” appropriating and locking down the work is exactly as possible with CC-BY as it is with CC0 or with no license whatsoever.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Would the amount of evidence matter?

The Author could produce the copyright registration.

The Author could produce evidence of the earliest performance and “fixed in tangible medium” which at that moment copyright exists.

The Author could possibly produce intermediate working drafts of music and lyrics. Recordings. If they are dated in a verifiable way, then better.

It would be interesting if one of the RIAA-holes or their shills were to try to claim copyright. How would one prove it?

DannyB (profile) says:

Cultural Long Shot

Maybe it’s a cultural long shot. But things can go viral for various reasons. One reason is when everyone recognizes a wrong but is individually powerless to do anything about it. Another reason is self interest. Having a new song that:
1. no cost
2. no lawsuit
3. sticks it to the copyright owner demonstrating vulgar greed
may be all the self-interest it takes.

Notice how the United Breaks Guitars song went viral. People could relate, but couldn’t do anything about getting screwed by airlines, other than to spread the song.

If the new song is any good, everyone has a motive to use it.

Nigel (profile) says:

Flash Mob

We should organize a huge flash mob to sing happy birthday in front of their offices.

10585 Santa Monica Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90025
(310) 441-8600

Who in their right mind would pay those fukwits for the right to sing happy birthday in the first place.

“The song generates a ridiculous amount of money per year (estimates say around $2 million)”
That soulless shit has to stop. Via pitchforks and torches is cool with me.


Ray Trygstad (profile) says:

Just crowdsource a legal fight against Warner Chappell

I think a far better–and in the long run more valuable–alternative would be to fight the world’s single most egregious example of copyfraud by having someone step up to blatantly abuse the alleged “copyright” and then crowdsource payment of their defense. I’d certainly donate. I am thoroughly sick of copyfraud.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s time for a new copyright-free Happy Birthday song, so write one and place it under a copyright license!

Do not want. Even a license as otherwise permissive as CC-BY scarcely qualifies as “copyright-free”. The license terminates if you fail to uphold the attribution requirement, and let’s remind ourselves what that requirement is:

a. You may Distribute or Publicly Perform the Work only under the terms of this License. You must include a copy of, or the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) for, this License with every copy of the Work You Distribute or Publicly Perform.

b. If You Distribute, or Publicly Perform the Work or any Adaptations or Collections, You must, unless a request has been made pursuant to Section 4(a), keep intact all copyright notices for the Work

Singing the new song? Don’t forget to print out or link people to the CC-BY license, and also pass along notice of who holds the copyright! Otherwise you lose the license, and all of your permissions to copy, remix, and perform the song get retroactively removed. Awesome.

Sabrina says:

copyright law

I think our current copyright law is stupid. Copyright is a monopoly. Somethings shouldnit be copyrighted. What ever happen to creating works to be shared and for others to enjoy. I started a petition to try and limit copyright law at the site. I would like to limit it more than what my petition says but wasn’t sure if I could get enough signatures at the time if I did so If I can at least limit the copyright law in some way it would be nice. Here is the link if anyone is intrested. Please share it with others.

GMacGuffin says:

Our nuclear family song...

This is the birthday song my wife and I spontaneously wrote about 12 years ago at a diner (after the diner did their own self-advertising awful birthday song for some patron). It has spread pretty widely through family and friends.

Just clap your hands in time and sing-song a kinda tune of your choice:

It’s your birthday, what the heck
Stick a pencil in my neck
Kill me now
Don’t care how
Iiiiiiiit’s your birthday.

Ninja (profile) says:

Now srsly. Let us put the thing inside our heads to work for a bit. Behold the mighty and creative lyrics!

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear Johnny
Happy birthday to you

A sentence you use every time you’ll wish happy birthday for someone repeated 3 times and a small variation to add warmth and love. And this fucking dumb thing generates $2 million per year.

Gentleman, we are in the wrong business.

Michael (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Thank you for using our song!

We have noticed that you have published the lyrics to our ingenious and original song. It warms out heart to see one of our rich contributions to society being used and we rejoice in finding it.

Unfortunately, our records indicate that neither you, nor TechDirt, nor Google (through which we found this) has properly licensed the content above. To resolve this oversight, we are offering you a licensing fee based on $2000 per our estimation of the number of people that will read this post. Over the next 100 years, we estimate that an average of 10 people per day will read this post, so we will be sending you an invoice for the total of $730,000,000. We can set up a payment plan with the low interest rate of 72% APR if you are unable to pay in full at this time.

Thank you
Warner Chappell

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