Our long national nightmare is over.
Judge George H. King, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, ruled this week that the copyrights claimed for the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” were invalid. Hurrah!
No more waitstaff singing bizarre birthday songs. No more organizations being charged to sing a song everyone was taught by the age of three.
“Happy Birthday” has been for many people (e.g., me) the poster child for the utter insanity that is the intellectual property system in the U.S. and Europe.* Currently, copyright extends for life of the author plus ninety years. In the case of long-lived authors, that can be quite a while.
The melody for “Happy Birthday” was composed in 1893. The melody went into the public domain quite a while ago, but Warner/Chappell music (who bought the alleged copyrights in 1988 from the original claimant) argued that they still controlled the lyrics, with the result that anyone who wanted to use the song for commercial purposes, even for very short snippets, had to pay royalties. (The claimant was not the Hill sisters, who wrote the song, but their publisher. The last remaining Hill sister died in 1916.) Warner grabbed about $2 million per year from filmmakers, greeting card producers, and theaters. Restaurants figured out that trotting out that cupcake with a candle in it could just as easily be done to the strains of some other song. (Unfortunately, I’ve never heard a waiter sing the Birthday Dirge.)
Combined with the Lenz .v Universal Music Corp. decision, in which the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district court ruling that copyright holders have to consider fair use** before issuing DMCA takedown notices,*** and it’s been a good month for us anarchists who believe that the entire system needs to be scrapped and replaced with something more intelligent.
*The pharmaceutical patent system is another horrible can of worms. And tech patents. And…
**I once asked an IP attorney of my acquaintance to explain fair use, since I had trouble understanding it. “Fair use is people stealing work they have no right to” he replied. (I decided he was too touchy on the subject for me to ask again.) He may have a point, at least in some cases: Richard Prince has swiped images from Instagram, to which he has added a comment, blown up and sold for up to $100,000 a pop. Previously he has taken works by other artists without permissions, modified them (although they are still recognizable) and sold them as his own. He has prevailed in court on claims that his work falls within the “fair use” exception. This Prince is a knave.
***Universal had issued a takedown notice against a woman who posted a thirty second clip with bad audio of her toddler dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy” on YouTube. The company and Prince say they are determined to remove all Prince-related content from the Internet as a matter of principle. Prince claims that he wants to “reclaim his art” from the Internet. This Prince is an ass.