Monday, February 22, 2016

How Old Are You?

The song that is sung before the title question is posed and the cake is cut, as most anyone past the age of three will tell you, is 'Happy Birthday.' To think of 'Happy Birthday' as something someone can collect royalties on is like thinking 'Old MacDonald Had a Farm' enjoys the protection of a copyright. Gee, does it?

This story has been around for a while. Warner/Chappell Music was in the habit of invoking its copyright ownership status on the use of singing 'Happy Birthday.' ASCAP, that American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was as far aback as 1996 leaning heavy against the Girl Scouts and the camp-fire songs being sung at camp. They belligerently even said that singing 'Happy Birthday' would put the Girl Scouts in legal do-do. Uproar.

The 'Happy Birthday' part didn't go away. It wasn't until a federal judge, U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled in a 43-page ruling (I have always wondered if this is double, or single-spaced.) in September 2015 that the royalties the music industry had been collecting on the song 'Happy Birthday to You' were not legally collectable. They did not own a valid copyright to the song. Finally, relief.

It is quite possible you were never aware of any of this. Singing 'Happy Birthday to You' over a cake burning with candles in your home was no one's idea of copyright infringement, but apparently using the song in more public, or media settings without paying a royalty was a no-no.

As with anything we take for granted, there is a history. Music can be just that, music, or it can be a song, composed of music, a melody, and words, called lyrics. Each can be separately copyritten. The melody to 'Happy Birthday' apparently comes from a song of more than 100 years ago, 'Good Morning to All,' written by a pair of sisters named Hill, one of whom was a kindergarten and nursery school teacher. We all know where trouble starts.

The full 'Happy Birthday' lyrics apparently didn't appear in print until 1931. There is no one in my family who I can ask: "Well, before 1931, did you sing anything when it was someone's birthday?" In your family?

Warner/Chappell Music were considering themselves to be the holder of the copyright to the song and the lyrics. And if you think what could they have been collecting, it turns out enough to offer $14 million  in restitution to those it charged royalties to.

Even with all this apparent silliness over the world's most common song finally lifted, I didn't start to fell better until I realized that NASA's Mars Rover would not be in copyright violation as it sang 'Happy Birthday' to itself on its first anniversary powering itself all along the surface of Mars.

Sticking NASA and the American taxpayer with a bill over that would have been un-American. I probably would have gotten mad.

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