Copyright is one of those things librarians deal with all the time. People making copies of pages from books want to know if it’s legal (it is.) People check out our music CDs and make copies of them, and we worry whether that’s legal, but it’s not like there’s anything we can do about that. Librarians attend workshops and seminars about copyright, copyright in the digital age, and more.
There have been two significant court decisions in the past few weeks concerning copyright, both of them probably good news for the average person. First, a court decided that a music publisher could not force YouTube to take down videos that people post just because they contain snippets of copyrighted songs. The court case originated in a video a woman posted of her toddler dancing to a song by Prince, which got millions of hits. The court asserted that this was a clear-cut case of ‘fair use.’ Fair use covers the average person’s use of copyrighted material where no profit is sought or achieved–such as copying several pages of a book for a homework assignment, or a girl posting a video of herself riding a horse while the Eagles warble Desperado in the background.
The other decision was to remove the copyright restriction from the song Happy Birthday to You. Many people don’t know this, but whenever this simple song is sung on a TV show or in a movie, the producers of that show or movie have to pay a royalty to Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. That’s why, if you think about it, you rarely hear people singing the song on TV, even though there are many plots involving birthdays. Or you hear people singing odd birthday songs, like the one Mr. Rogers always sang on his show.
Happy Birthday to You was written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill around 1893. Actually they patched the lyrics onto an existing song called Good Morning to You. They later sold their copyright to one music publishing company, which later sold it to Warner/Chappell. If the intent of a copyright is to protect creators of content from losing control of their property, that doesn’t seem to encompass some music publisher well over a hundred years later profiting from their creative endeavor, and the court agreed.
It’s funny that in the discussion, much was made of the lyric to the song. Since the tune already existed, it was really the lyric that was copyrighted. That’s right–all 5 words of it. Count them. Five words, with one fill in the blank. So it’s about time that particular silliness was ended. So next time you’re watching a favorite show, and a character on that show has a birthday, you will likely hear the old song sung by the whole cast. And it’s about time.