If you had to name one song that belongs to no singer or writer, it could the Happy Birthday song.
Where are we going? To the intellectual property we own.
Happy Birthday History
First called “Good Morning to All,” the Happy Birthday song we all know was composed by two sisters in 1893.
But here is where the story gets complicated.
A firm buys the rights and agrees to give the sisters 10 percent of the song’s retail sales. From there, the lyrics morph into the Happy Birthday song and are published.
You can see the “special permission” note under the title in a 1927 songbook. For a current copyright lawsuit, those two words are crucial.
The 1927 songbook with the “Good Morning and Birthday Song” has become a key piece of evidence about whether Happy Birthday has copyright protection that dates backs many decades or is in the public domain. Saying she does not owe $1500 to a subsidiary of Warner Brothers for using the song, a film maker took them to court. With $2 million in annual licensing fees at stake, Warner/Chappell disagrees.
Our Bottom Line: Intellectual Property
Former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers once said something like, “No one in the history of the world ever washed a rental car.” You know what he meant. Whatever we own, we take care of, we improve, we can sell.
On the other hand, legal scholar Richard Posner reminded us that items in the public domain can be equally inspirational. Explaining his position, he presented…
“…the hypothetical example of a mural that is first sketched and only later completed by being carefully painted. If the sketch is allowed to enter the public domain, there to be improved by creative copiers, the mural artist will have a diminished incentive to perfect his mural. True; but other artists will have a greater incentive to improve it, or to create other works inspired by it, because they won’t have to pay a license fee to do so provided that the copyright on the original work has expired.”
Do broad or narrow physical and intellectual property rights inspire more creativity? With the Happy Birthday song, the debate continues.