Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Holy Shit, the Birthday Song!

The traditional English birthday greeting

This is my 100th post on this here blog. To celebrate, I'd like to lead a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday to You." But I can't. And it's not because a blog is an inanimate series of 1s and 0s hosted on a data server and transferred via a series of tubes to your monitor. Nor is it because a chorus requires people to be in the same room, and Internet communication requires no such thing.

Picasso's "Old Guitarist"
That would affect the logistics a little bit, though. And make it lonelier.

It's because "Happy Birthday to You" is copyrighted, and it has been since 1935. If you've ever wondered why family restaurants all have their own terrible, awkward birthday songs, this is why. Warner/Chappell Music owns the rights to the song, and they absolutely insist that anyone who sings it in a way that can be construed as "for profit" must send them a generous royalty check. Almost like a...birthday present?


This is one of those things you're going to start noticing all the time now that you know it. Whenever it's someone's birthday in a film or on television, they'll typically either cut the song off after a few words so that they can claim fair use, invent their own song a la family restaurants, or resort to the archaic but public domain "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Don't worry, there's hope. Warner/Chappell Music is facing a class-action lawsuit that, if the plaintiffs prevail, will set "Happy Birthday to You" squarely in the public domain beside its older, British-er companion. Until then, you might want to avoid singing it unless most of the people around you are family or friends. Because they absolutely will sue your pants off. And why wouldn't they? The company rakes in $5,000 per day just by enforcing their copyright.

Holy shit.

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