Happy Birthday ruled out-of-copyright

posted in: Creation, Media, Writing | 0


First of all, yes!  Yea!  Yeah!  Awesomesauce.

Second of all, it’s about time.

Third, let’s discuss it a little.  I’m a fan of copyright.  I benefit from it, obviously.  And I approve of the purpose; to allow a creator of a work to have the chance to benefit from it.  But the modern copyright system has gone too far.  Life of the creator, plus seventy years.  And, the way Disney keeps going, it’s going to just keep increasing in length because they refuse to let Steamboat Willy lapse into the public domain.

Life of the creator, maybe even life plus twenty to give the estate some time to work with, sure.  But the lengths these days are just impossible.

Why do I care?  Well, Happy Birthday is a really good example.  Ever wonder why you’ll see a movie or show where they won’t sing the song at a character’s birthday party?  Or why they’ll sing something else that’s very obviously not Happy Birthday?  Simple; copyright.  They don’t want to pay the fee for the use of this ridiculously simple song, that was written so long ago its had basically a century to etch itself into the national fabric.  The court case, which I’ve been following, outlines how Warner/Chappell have been profiting to the tune of two million dollars a year in rights fees for Happy Birthday.

I’m sorry, I just think that’s pretty obscene.  At one point, I would’ve been on their side.  Now though, after so long, I’m not.  Copyright isn’t supposed to lock every creation away, allowing it to be used as a threat against other creators.  Music gets bad enough; I thank my lucky whatevers every few weeks I’m not a musician, because it seems more or less impossible to write music without infringing on someone else’s copyright.  Here’s the easiest example:

Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters, the eponymous theme song from the movie.  Huey Lewis successfully sued and secured a judgement (with payment) because that song is apparently similar to I Want a New Drug.  Yeah, I don’t get it either.  I guess you need to be a professional musician to understand how both are similar.  But to me, a simple listener, they’re not; but a judge disagreed.  And if the one infringes on the other, musicians have got to be just completely screwed.  I feel sorry for them.

But moving back to a broader look at copyright, the problem with the lengthy terms is things don’t release into the public domain.  Specifically, this means they can’t be played with by others.  That’s the point of public domain, that’s why copyright was always created with a time limit.  Initially it was much shorter, and has just grown and grown as corporations have paid politicians to extend the protection.  Which is ironic considering a number of Disney’s base films, the ones that built the studio into the juggernaut we know today, originate from older tales and content that was in the public domain.

We’re already at basically a hundred years of coverage, considering today’s lifespans and the plus seventy part.  It’s probably not an exaggeration that a lot of copyright terms over the past thirty or so years will likely run 110 or more years.  Basically, Star Wars will never come out of copyright in my lifetime.  My nephew, who’s over twenty-five years younger than me, won’t see it in the public domain either.

My point’s not that I want to legally play in the Star Wars universe (though, actually, I do); but rather that, like Happy Birthday, Star Wars has become a bedrock piece of cultural fabric for the modern world.  You have to really look, really look hard, to find someone who isn’t familiar with it.  And yet that entire galaxy far far away is locked up in protection.  Even though we’re moving up on forty years since its initial release.  At a certain point it just gets silly.  We’ve literally got entire generations (I’m one of them, the first generation) that grew up with Star Wars, and can only reference it very cautiously, on tip-toe; even though it was a pivotal piece of our childhoods.

Happy Birthday is free for everyone.  So sing loud at the next party you attend.  Hopefully the writers of all the things we love to watch and read and consume will take advantage, and use the right song – the same one we do at our private parties – in their next birthday party scene.  One less bit of silliness that makes the audience wonder what’s going on will now be replaced by the familiar and proper refrain that matches fiction with fact.

Happy Birthday to everyone!