The lyrics to the commonly-sung Happy Birthday song have long been believed to be under copyright. But some believe otherwise, and due to a variety of technical reasons, the US District Court for the Central District of California struck a blow against that song’s purported ownership.
It may be entering the public domain!
Despite the complicated, technical legal situation, the final words of the court order are clear: “Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
Given that the defendants include Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., who have claimed the song would be theirs until 2030 (and paid an estimated $5 million in valuation for it when buying Summy Co.), this ruling could end all need to pay royalties in the United States for the song.
This ruling will be spun as a blow for shorter copyright, but it has nothing to do with that. This is purely about the technicalities of copyright as it existed in at the beginning of the 20th century, as well as the chain of ownership. But the debate will go on. I think copyright goes on too long. I can see an argument for having it longer than the framers set it to be. However once you go over a century – and in fact once you start extending copyright every time Steamboat Willie’s copyright threatens to expire – you’re risking going against the Constitutional mandate for copyrights of limited time.
Hollywood’s lobbyists once argued that you could go declare copyright to last “forever minus a day” and be of limited duration. I don’t think that’s a position a Constitutionalist could reasonably take. It doesn’t even make sense: it’s just another way of saying ‘infinity minus one’ and that’s not a valid mathematical statement!