The mere filing of a copyright case doesn’t usually make a major splash in the media but when it involves the most performed song in the world, even The New York Times takes notice. Apparently, filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, was making a documentary about the song, “Happy Birthday to You” and didn’t like the idea that Warner/Chappell Music insisted on her taking a $1500 license to use the song in the film as she – and probably most people – think it’s in the public domain. So yesterday, Ms. Nelson filed a birthday suit of sorts: an action in federal court seeking a declaratory judgment that the song is, in fact, in the public domain and no permission is needed to use it.
So, in little more than the time it takes to sing the song, I’m going to use it as a way to review a few basic copyright law principles that are sometimes misunderstood. Let the questions begin!
What is the public domain? The public domain is the body of works, music, novels, plays, texts, etc., that is no longer (or never was) protected by copyright and is therefore free for anyone to use or adapt.
When is a song in the public domain? As they say in Facebook status land, “it’s complicated.” For songs written since 1978, a U.S. copyright lasts for the life of the author (or last surviving author if there’s more than one) plus seventy years. If there’s no author, such as a work-for-hire, the term is 95 years. For older works, the U.S. used to have a system of an initial term and then the copyright had to be renewed for, you guessed it, the “renewal term.” For these older copyrights, the initial term was 28 years and the renewal term, through various extensions, was increased to 67 years, for a total of 95 years. There’s more to it than this, but basically, if a work was written prior to 1923, it’s most likely in the public domain here. Maybe you’re thinking that’s an awfully long time when the Constitution says that copyrights are supposed to be “for limited times.” Larry Lessig thought so when he challenged the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act but the U.S. Supreme Court strongly disagreed.
Do I need to get a license to sing “Happy Birthday to You” to my kid at my backyard barbecue? Even assuming the song is still under copyright – and as we’ll soon see that’s a big assumption – the answer is still “no.” U.S. Copyright law gives copyright owners a certain bundle of rights. Among them is the exclusive right to authorize “public performances.” A backyard barbecue, a birthday party in your basement and most other gatherings among “a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances” is a private performance for which no permission is needed.
What if I sing the song at a gig or at a party of 500 of my closest friends and acquaintances? You’re probably safe to sing the song – or any other copyrighted song. Most public venues where music is performed (concert and catering halls, clubs and stadiums) or broadcast (TV and radio stations) have licenses from “performing rights organizations” such as ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. These companies issue “blanket” licenses to venues and broadcasters (and web sites, too) which allow the licensee to perform all the works in their respective repertories as much as they want.
Why would a filmmaker need a license? The permission that Warner/Chappell sought from Ms. Nelson for her film is known as a “synchronization” or “synch” license because the user is synchronizing music to picture. Whenever a pre-existing copyrighted song is used in any audio-visual work, such as a film, TV show, TV ad or videogame, a synchronization license is required from the copyright owner, usually a music publisher. If you’re using pre-recorded music, then you need permission from both the music publisher of the song and the copyright owner of the recording, typically a record label.
What if I post a video of my kid dancing to a Justin Bieber song? Putting aside issues of taste, technically, you’d need synch licenses from the music publisher(s) of the song and from The Bieb’s label although the actual performance of the video may be covered if the site has licenses from the performing rights organizations. As a practical matter, unless your home video is generating millions of views or you’re selling truckloads of DVDs it’s unlikely that anyone will come after you for a technical violation.
So, is “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain? That’s for the court to decide, but if the facts are as alleged in the complaint and as cited in the news reports and elsewhere, it seems that the song would be “PD” as we music types say. The melody is said to come from a song called “Good Morning to All” written in 1893 and, the combination of music and lyrics is said to have appeared in print in 1912, possibly earlier. By my reckoning, if these are the facts, both 1912 and 1893 are prior to 1923. At least one legal scholar, Richard Brauneis, has written a 68-page article (with 320 footnotes!) in which he concludes that the song is in the public domain.
How can Warner / Chappell claim the song is still under copyright? Again, the facts will play out in the lawsuit, but it seems that W/C has a 1935 copyright registration, crediting different writers as the creators of the song. The complaint alleges that this registration is for a piano /vocal arrangement of the song. Another of the things in the “bundle of rights” a copyright owner gets is the right to make a “derivative work” of the underlying work, such as an arrangement or adaptation. Turning a novel into a film constitutes making a derivative work, which is why the novelist gets paid when the film is made.
For example, the song “Simple Gifts” is a Shaker hymn from the nineteenth century. Most people know it from Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the tune in his ballet, “Appalachian Spring.” As the original song is PD, anyone can perform the original melody and lyrics or make their own arrangement. But, if you want to use Mr. Copland’s treatment of the work you’ll need permission from Copland’s publisher, Boosey & Hawkes. So, if the underlying song, “Happy Birthday to You” turns out to be in the public domain, anyone can use it and make their own arrangement of it, as long as they don’t use any particular copyrighted arrangement of the work, such as ones owned by Warner / Chappell. And, of course, you can write a new song, with your own melody and lyrics, and call it “Happy Birthday to You” as titles are not copyrightable.