Here Is A Law Suit To Root For

birthdaycake1The 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