happy birthday is free after all

According to Robert Brauneis’ new paper, “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song”, the song “Happy Birthday To You” — long held as an example by us copyright reformists — is most likely not copyrighted after all, due to the tortuous path of ownership and failure to re-register.[linked from patry copyright blog]

See also the brauneis website for the song’s history.

The author draws four important lessons, summarized here:

  1. [T]he perils of using anecdotes in legal and policy arguments. (p.3) Hoho. Yes.
  2. Noting the utter lack of litigation over this song, despite the weaknesses in the copyright and the money at stake ($2M/year), Brauneis suggests, “[T]he absence of such challenges strongly suggests that there are structural barriers to mounting them, and those structural barriers are worth exploring.”
  3. Noting what was effective abandonment of the copyright of the work for long stretches of time, despite significant uses by others, Brauneis reminds readers that “Were “Happy Birthday to You” a piece of real property, its open, unopposed use over such a period could have resulted in the acquisition of prescriptive rights.” Developing doctrines of adverse possession / prescriptive easements to go along with the propertarian rhetoric of copyright maximalists has been on many people’s proposal lists (even I, as a lowly 1L in properly law, came up with this argument), but this article gives the “dead hands” arguments new teeth by tying the ongoing copyright term extensions to his newly uncovered history: “In light of that increase [in copyright term], it may be necessary to develop some doctrine to avoid the inefficiency and inequity that could result from reassertion of copyright in a work that had been published and used by others without opposition over a long period of time.”
  4. A lesson about the difficulty in tracking copyright, and a reminder that that difficulty will only increase as copyright terms lengthen. Brauneis refers to Copyright Office records, which, reminder to readers, were decimated by the abolition of formal registration requirements in the 1976 Copyright Act. This is also an opportune moment to plug the Orphan Works Act, recently re-introduced in both the House & the Senate. (See beSpacific, 4/27; mebeliWired Campus, 4/25)

Also, just in the matter of women’s musical history, Brauneis does a great job in recovering and fleshing out the story of Mildred Hill and Patty Hill.