Everyone 'Settles' Happy Birthday Copyright Case… Leaves Plenty Of Questions Totally Unanswered

from the so,-uh... dept

Yesterday was actually my birthday… and apparently while I was celebrating returning to the same relative spot in the solar system, the folks arguing over the copyright on the song Happy Birthday agreed to settle the case. What’s lacking, of course, are details. There’s just a minute order in the docket:

MINUTE ORDER IN CHAMBERS re: Joint Status Report Regarding Settlement by Judge George H. King: The Court has been advised that the Parties Plaintiffs, Defendants, and the Intervenors have agreed to settle this case. Based on this development, the Court orders as follows: 1. The Parties are relieved from filing trial briefs and the joint exhibit list. 2. The bench trial set for Tuesday, December 15, 2015 is hereby VACATED and TAKEN OFF CALENDAR. No appearance is required at that time. 3. Within ten days hereof, counsel SHALL file a joint status report setting forth the Parties’ proposed steps, and timing of those steps, to effectuate the settlement. (Entered: 12/09/2015)

This follows on some events on Monday that I had been intending to write up, in which the judge (perhaps surprisingly) allowed people to try to get licensing fees back from Warner/Chappell going all the way back to 1949. Most people expected that the lawsuit would only allow a clawback of about three years worth — since that’s the statute of limitations. But the filmmakers argued that Warner/Chappell concealed the truth (that it didn’t hold the copyright). The judge didn’t necessarily accept that argument, but did say that the filmmakers could make that argument.

At the same time, the judge also allowed the charity — Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) — which represents the heirs of Patty and Mildred Hill, to intervene in the case. As you may recall, after the initial ruling, that charity suddenly raised its hand to claim that if Warner didn’t hold the copyright, then it did.

Unfortunately, by settling the case, things are left kind of up in the air. The song is still not officially in the public domain. The court has ruled that Warner doesn’t hold the copyright… but ACEI claims it does hold the copyright. This may mean that anyone else looking to use the song may have to go through another whole legal dispute. Some of the details of the settlement are likely to come out at some point soon (within 10 days when they have to file with the court, most likely), but the fact that there’s no final ruling on the public domain issue is unfortunate.

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Companies: association for childhood education international, good morning to you productions, warner/chappel

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Comments on “Everyone 'Settles' Happy Birthday Copyright Case… Leaves Plenty Of Questions Totally Unanswered”

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20 Comments
Derek Kerton (profile) says:

I'm Hating on This So Much

Geez. Let’s just write up another song. It’s such a simple, mindless song that we can surely conjure up another similar Public Domain version in a matter of minutes.

But inventing a new song, and putting it in the public domain would NOT work, would it? Because people have learned the existing song, memorized it already. It’s part of the fabric, part of our culture.

It is, thus, the culture and the people that imbue that stupid little song with it’s extraordinary value. The value comes from US. The incongruous notion of treating that value as Real Property, and as specifically the property of Warner/Chappell is bullshit.

It is the public that has created the value in the song, and Warner/Chappell has made us pay them for the value we created.

techflaws (profile) says:

Re: I'm Hating on This So Much

Let’s just write up another song. It’s such a simple, mindless song that we can surely conjure up another similar Public Domain version in a matter of minutes.

Of course someone could but that’s not the issue. The issue is that something that clearly should belong to everyone since it’s already deeply ingrained in popular culture could be profited from by a company.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I'm Hating on This So Much

Sing this to the tune of “Good Morning To You” (Public domain tune):

Good Birthday dear Mike,
Good Birthday dear Mike,
We with you a merry birthday,
Good Birthday to you!

The “Good” is obviously from the original PD song, leaving only “Birthday” in the same position as the “Happy Birthday” song. Since this is an adaptation of “Good Morning To You” involving birthdays, this is to be expected.

To be generous to the rightsholders of “Happy Birthday” I even removed the “to you” that it shares with the original song, except at the very end where it’s the obvious fit.

We Wish You a Merry Birthday is a folk adaptation of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” which the astute among you will realize shares the same tune and loose meter as “Happy Birthday” but is a folk carol from the 16th century (hmm… where did “Good Morning To You” come from, do you think).

If you want something different, I offer you:

“We wish you a happy birthday,
We wish you a happy birthday,
We wish you a happy birthday,
And an excellent year!

Best wishes to Mike,
to you and your kin,
We wish you a happy birthday,
And an excellent year!

Anonymous Coward says:

Most people expected that the lawsuit would only allow a clawback of about three years worth — since that’s the statute of limitations.

Last I heard, the majority of districts have ruled that the statute of limitations for copyright infringement begins on the date that the infringement is discovered, not the date which it occurred. Any sane legal system would simply point to that and tell them to pay up. But in ours, that only applies to copyright infringement, not lying about copyright infringement.

Fin says:

What would happen if someone registered the lyrics

Happy berth day 2 u
Happy berth day 2 u
Happy berth day deer blah blah
Happy berth day 2 u

Sung to the good morning to you tune.

It would be an intentional paradoy of happy birthday celebrating a deer purchasing a berth …

If that was sang surely that would wipe out the issue and make it a number 1 paraody over night.

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