The continuing charging of licensing fees for commercial use of that most public of songs, “Happy Birthday,” has been an annoying anomaly for as long as I can remember. Why did TV families always sing some lame approximation or substitute when a character had a birthday? Just last week, I expressed my chagrin when Tom Selleck’s extended family on “Blue Bloods” brought out granddad Len Cariou’s birthday cake, blazing with candles, as they sang, “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow!” Who sings that at a birthday party today? People who don’t want to be held up for the licensing rights for a song over a century old, that’s who. I believe the first time this issue imposed itself on my consciousness was when they sang some lame birthday song stand-in on “The Flintstones.”
Jennifer Nelson, a film-maker, has had enough. She was producing a documentary movie about the song, and naturally wanted it to be performed at one point in her film. Like many before her, she was told she would have to pay $1,500 via a licensing agreement with Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of the Warner Music Group, which acquired the rights to the song in 1988. Nelson’s company paid the fee and is now seeking certification for a class action law suit arguing that “Happy Birthday” is in the public domain, and has been. Warner/Chappell collects about $2 million a year in licensing fees for it, and the suit seeks return of the fees it collected over the last four years. The lawsuit cites the research of Robert Brauneis, a professor at the George Washington University Law School and the author of a 68-page article titled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song.” In the study, Professor Brauneis demonstrates, to his satisfaction at least, that the Hill sisters, Mildred and Patty, wrote a song in the late 1800s with the same melody called “Good Morning to All.” Nobody is certain who wrote the lyrics referring to a birthday, but it was in popular use as early as 1911. Continue reading
My father hated “God Bless America.” He particularly hated jumbo 40′s singer Kate Smith’s rendition of it, which he believed exploited patriotism and combined it with sentimentality and schmaltz to get ratings and sell records. Smith had an unadorned clarion belt that particularly suited Irving Berlin’s blunt melody, and for 30 years she used the song as her signature, as much as Judy Garland used “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Whenever Smith appeared on a TV variety show like The Hollywood Palace, he would order me to change the channel (yes, I was the family remote) for fear that he would have to hear her sing that song.
I assumed that was the reason why I have felt queasy about Major League Baseball’s 7th inning stretch ritual, installed in 2001, of having a recording of Kate or a live singer ring out the Irving Berlin standard at every major league baseball game since the Twin Towers fell. In today’s Washington Post, however, a Methodist minister—my father was also a Methodist, as much as he was anything—explained why he refuses to stand for the song. He nailed it.
James Marsh writes, Continue reading
When is a sincere apology unethical? Here’s a good example.
Abused and Abuser. Someone please tell Katy Perry which is which.
Pop singing star Katy Perry registered an ethically responsible objection via Twitter regarding the Chief Keef song “Hate Being Sober.” She wrote,
“Just heard a new song on the radio called ‘I hate being sober’ I now have serious doubt for the world.”
Me too, Katy. The artist responsible for this paean to intoxication, however, took offense, and decided to rebut Katy’s tweet with an obscene, abusive, misogynist attack:
“Dat bitch Katy Perry Can Suck Skin Off Of my Dick Ill Smack The Shit out her”
Thus chastened (or intimidated?), Perry apologized to him, writing that she really liked the song, and wasn’t “a hater”: Continue reading
“I was put into a system I didn’t know the nature of…. I’m a child of former slaves. I got into an economic paradigm and had that imposed on me. I sold 50 million units…Someone did the math, and it came to around $600 million. And I sit here before you trying to figure out how to pay a tax debt? If that’s not like enough to slavery, I don’t know what is.”
— Singer-songwriter, actress, rapper and hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill, complaining to the judge as she was sentenced to three months in prison and a $60,000 fine for failing to pay taxes on her earnings of approximately $1.8 million between 2005 and 2008.
Lauryn Hill’s parents. OK, not really. Metaphorically, perhaps. You better ask Lauryn.
Now let’s see…Hill’s statement is…
- An abdication of responsibility. Hill has been in the entertainment business, and wonderfully successful at it, since she was 18 and landed a continuing role on the soap opera, “As the World Turns.” Few “know the nature of” the strange world of stardom, agents, performing contracts and the rest that goes with the highest levels of American show business when they enter it, but most manage to learn the basics, and most also manage to pay their taxes. Hill has had plenty of time to learn “the system,” whichever one she was referring to. She is also a native-born natural citizen, and I’m sure the reality of income taxes didn’t escape her notice for all these years. Continue reading
OK, but Stephen: compared to you, everyone is an ignoramus!
Stephen Sondheim completed his personal memoirs about his career in American musicals more than a year ago, but they are so thoughtful, detailed and dense that I keep discovering new treasures, provocative observations by a first-rate mind. Yesterday, I found one that was buried in a footnote, in the middle of a technical tangent that most readers, like me in my first tour through the books, probably skimmed.
Sondheim pointedly did not use his erudite analysis and reflections in his two retrospectives (“Finishing the Hat” and “Look! I Made a Hat!”) to settle scores with critics, a group that obviously annoyed and to some extent handicapped him over the course of his long career. In this brief footnote, however, the composer/lyricist delivers a withering verdict:
“The sad truth is that musicals are the only public art form reviewed mostly by ignoramuses.”
At the end of the note, he repeats the indictment, this time changing the description to “illiterates.” Sondheim is accusing theater critics of engaging in professional conduct they are incompetent to perform, rendering expert opinions that are not really expert, and as a result, misinforming the public and undermining the efforts of serious artists, like him. If he is right, not only are the critics unprofessional and unethical, the media organs that hire and publish them are unethical as well. Continue reading
I wouldn’t mess with this guy, Ryan. No way. But be my guest…
The real mystery for me in this silly scenario is why the rapper would think he could publicly promise a $1 million reward and not have to make good on it. Any rational theories will be received with pleasure.
Ryan Leslie, who has penned a hit song or two and performs as a hip-hop artist himself, had his laptop and external hard-drive stolen while he was on tour in Cologne, Germany two years ago. Apparently he felt that the demos and songs on the equipment had potential, because he offered $20,000 for the laptop and hard-drive’s return. When that didn’t work, he upped the reward to $1 million. A man named Armin Augstein found the computer while walking his dog in a park not far from where the computer had been taken, and he turned it over to German police. When the man claimed his reward, Leslie refused to hand it over, claiming that Augstein must have been involved in the theft, though police found no evidence supporting that allegation. Continue reading
Ethics Alarms’ 2011 Commenter of the Year tgt, who found this story and passed it on, asks,
“How is a horrible stoner rock band more ethical than everyone in politics?”
It’s a great, if sorrowful, question.
A.V. Club has a feature (which could be called “Start a Feud”) in which it asks a rock performer what song he or she hates, and why. Jenn Wasner, one half of the Baltimore indie-folk duo Wye Oak (“a blend of Southern culture and Northern sensibilities…”) submitted to this invitation to get in trouble, and fingered the song in the video above, “Scars,” by Papa Roach.
Criticizing the work of other artists in the same field is unprofessional at best, gratuitously unkind and disrespectful. Papa Roach’s members would have been within their rights to fire back something less than complimentary in defense, at very least the observation that ethical musicians don’t take gratuitous shots at one another. What the band did however, was this: it sent Wasner flowers. Wasner was convinced it was some kind of diabolical trap, and tweeted as much. The band tweeted back: Continue reading
“If you don’t let things develop, it’s like keeping something in a bag and not letting it out to fly”
—-Bluegrass innovator and legend Earl Scruggs, who died yesterday, in an interview he gave in 2000. He was talking specifically about creating new sounds and kinds of music, but his larger point applies to everything in life, and is an ethical one.
Earl Scruggs almost single-handedly changed the banjo from an instrument associated with clowns and minstrel shows to a vital element in American music. His single-hand was his right hand, as he perfected a three-fingered playing style that gave the banjo as much range and depth as a guitar, cello or violin. With his long-time partner Lester Flatt, he injected bluegrass music into the American mainstream with his music for the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and, of course, TV’s “The Beverley Hillbillies.”
What Earl Scruggs recognized was that just as the fact that “everybody does it” doesn’t make something right, the reverse is also true. The fact that “everybody” hasn’t been doing something, or even that it has never been done or even considered, doesn’t automatically make it wrong. Ethics doesn’t impose rules to freeze societal standards and values, but to give us systems to evaluate whether standards of conduct and values need adjustment or reconsideration. Often we hear the verdict “Now that’s just wrong!” to condemn something that may not be wrong at all, but just surprising, non-traditional and strange to those who never imagined such a thing. Too often that confusion of wrong and different inhibits creativity, innovation, and change for the better. That’s why innovation and condemnation are frequently linked, and why boldness and courage are prerequisites for positive change. Continue reading
California Assemblywoman Fiona Ma. " First Amendment? Where the heck did THAT come from?"
For this weekend’s Ethics Alarms quiz—the blog’s 2000th post!—I am asking readers to help me determine the Incompetent Official of the Week, when two unusually qualified candidates are running neck and neck.
Candidate A is McLennan County (Texas) District Attorney Abel Reyna: Defense attorney Walter M. Reaves has filed a motion asking for DNA testing as part of his efforts to exonerate Anthony Melendez, currently serving a life sentence for the 1982 slayings of three teenagers in Waco. Reaves says the test is needed because DNA analysis was not available when Melendez was convicted, and Melendez still maintains that he is innocent. D.A. Reyna, however, opposes the test. Why? He argues that such testing shows a lack of faith and support of the jury system, and what the jury has decided usually ought to be free of such post-trial attempts to discredit the verdict.
In other words, the D.A. believes that it is better to honor the jury system by letting an incorrect verdict stand than to use newly available scientific evidence to set an innocent man free. Continue reading