About a month ago, the United States District Court for the Central District of California issued a summary judgment ruling putting a nail in the coffin of one of the most tragically comical copyright claims of all time. After years of litigation and undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees (perhaps more), the Court concluded that the lyrics to the song “Happy Birthday” were never actually transferred to Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., the current troll that had been forcing us all to sit through awkward and unsettling performances of “original” songs during birthday feasts at our favorite chain restaurants. To those of you that don’t know the full lyrics, I’m reproducing them here:
Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday to you / Happy birthday dear [NAME] / Happy birthday to you
(No word yet on whether “You were born in a zoo / you look like a monkey / and you smell like one too” survives as a derivative work.)
The Court’s opinion is actually quite interesting, as it goes through a detailed history of the song and the absence of evidence demonstrating the “Happy Birthday” lyrics were ever actually assigned. The lyrics and melody (both of which are separately protected) were originally written around 1900. The melody and other lyrical variations of the song, such as “Good Morning to You,” slipped into the public domain in 1949. However, based on a claim to the lyrics of Happy Birthday, the various defendants in the lawsuit garnered millions of dollars in royalties over the following decades.
Despite enjoying the historical component of the opinion, I became increasingly frustrated that the ownership of this song was a serious lawsuit. The fact that there is even a need to use up court time on whether or not there was a valid assignment of a repetitive, four line song written more than a century ago starkly demonstrates a fundamental failing of our copyright system. United States copyright laws are some of the most Byzantine and irrational in the world. There are ridiculous variations on terms that are almost indecipherable to the lowly layman tasked with determining whether that photograph they want to post to Pinterest is copyrighted. Just check out this Copyright Office circular directed solely to determining “copyright duration.”
Moreover, in my humble and ultimately irrelevant opinion, the Copyright Act has gone way beyond its proper constitutional bounds. The so-called “Copyright Clause” of the U.S. Constitution, which is the basis for copyright laws (and others) in the U.S., gives Congress the authority: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” A century plus of protection seems neither “limited,” nor reasonably necessary to promote writings. Indeed, rather than promoting progress, United States Copyright laws have created absurd results and opportunities for abuse. I’ve previously blogged about invalid/questionable copyright claims regarding Sherlock Holmes and William Faulkner. The seemingly endless string of copyright extensions has also created at least the appearance of corruption, as the most recent extension has been pejoratively referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act.
With the proliferation of electronic media, we are facing inevitable and necessary reform to our current copyright system. Along with net neutrality, I think it’s probably going to be one of the most important issues in the next decade. After all, whoever controls the information controls the world.