Because the “Happy Birthday” song has entered the public domain, Grumpy Cat can finally smile.
Where are we going? To the intellectual property we own.
“Happy Birthday” History
The “Happy Birthday” music we all know was composed by two sisters in 1893. Acquired by publishers with new lyrics, the song was eventually claimed by Warner/Chappell when they purchased its owners. Now though a filmmaker said because Warner/Chappell really does not own the lyrics, it cannot charge her a $1500 royalty fee. The court agreed and declared that the song is in the public domain.
Below, you can see the original “Happy Birthday” song:
Not quite as ubiquitous as “Happy Birthday,” “We Shall Overcome” is facing the same challenge. A private group says it can charge users a royalty fee while others believe they cannot. As with “Happy Birthday,” the court will look back on what the NY Times calls a “murky” ownership history.
Our Bottom Line: Intellectual Property
For us though, we can think economically about the tradeoff between broad and narrow intellectual property rights.
On one side we have legal scholar Richard Posner’s argument that as a community we can improve each other’s work. Below he cites a hypothetical sketch of a mural:
“…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.”
On the other hand, former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers reminds us that ownership generates positive externalities. After all, no one ever washes a rented car.
Our sources and more: This NBC News article has the update on the birthday song and this NY Times article explains the “We Shall Overcome” case. Meanwhile taking us to other royalty challenges, this NY Times article looks at “This Land is Your Land.”