Happy Birthday to You–Free at Last!

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.

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Are All Books Equal, or Merely All Readers?

A few nights ago we had author R. A. Salvatore at the library. His books are, for the most part, fantasy novels, many of which are related to the creation of characters and scenarios for Dungeons and Dragons. In other words, the kind of genre-specific work that would elicit the comment ‘not my cup of tea’ from many readers. And yet he sells an awful lot of books, and our meeting room was packed with people who came to see him, hear him, and ask him questions.

He spoke about the ‘geek culture’ aspect of his work. He doesn’t like it. Doesn’t like the label. If people want to self-identify as geeks, that’s fine, but many people who do not still enjoy his books. Then he said something I have never heard anyone else say, at least not as clearly as he said it. When you criticize a book, he said, you are criticizing the people who like that book.

Every time that someone chooses to invest time in reading a book, they do so because there is something in that book that speaks to them. Maybe it’s the story, maybe it’s just the action and the chance to escape into fantasy for a while. Maybe the person is in high school and has no friends, and the characters in the book become his friends for a while. But whatever the reason that person has for reading, we have to recognize it as valid.

This is a lesson librarians should all learn early on, or they’re going to have a hard time of it. Many of us read a lot, and we are familiar with a lot of literature, and we can become pretty picky about what we like to read. But you have to always deal with the fact that what you like is only your opinion. If you ever want to find out how much your opinions matter, try choosing a book by your favorite author for your book discussion group and see how quickly it gets torn apart by other readers.

Of course there is literature that will endure for all time, and books that will be forgotten in a few years. But none of us at present know which books those will be. We can make good surmises, but in the end, it’s never certain. For now all we can do is respect all readers and their reading choices.