“Happy Birthday” Freed! Next should be Mickey Mouse

Original melodyYesterday, a federal judge summarily ruled that the infamous song, “Happy Birthday To You” is not copyrighted. Time-Warner bought the company that bought the company that bought the company that bought some rights to the song in the ’30s. The paperwork was vague, so the lawyers interpreted it to make lots of money for the alleged copyright holder.

The royalties currently add up to about $2 million a year. The plaintiffs in the copyright case are starting a class action suit to recover some of the royalties that Time Warner and its predecessors collected improperly.

The point of copyright and patents is to encourage people to create things. The copyright gives a legal monopoly over the work for some number of years. Modern patents last about 20 years. Copyrights used to last 28 years. Now they last 70 years past the death of the author. Clearly this has nothing to do with paying authors. It has everything to do with selling a DVD containing black-and-white Disney cartoons.

The Internet brought copyright infringement to the masses. We always hear about how we’re not supposed to use this or that material because someone else has the copyright. We create new things so quickly that most things on the Internet are arguably copyrighted whether the author intended it or not.

Before 1976, if I understand correctly, the only things copyrighted were things bearing the words “Copyright,” subject to certain other restrictions. The author had to claim a copyright in order for one to exist. This is what apparently happened to “Happy Birthday” – the authors never gave anyone explicit permission to publish the words of the song. The initial research was by a law professor in DC.

In 1976, the law was changed so that everything is presumed copyrighted, whether the author intended it or not. The law also extended copyright to the author’s lifetime plus 50 years.

In the late ’90s, Disney and a bunch of other entertainment companies successfully lobbied to add twenty years and more to copyright terms. “Steamboat Willie,” the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, was slated to lose protection, and so the law got changed.

Lawrence Lessig, a legal scholar, is running for President on a single-issue candidacy: get money out of politics. One of Lessig’s biggest efforts has been in copyright law: he started the Creative Commons. There’s one reason for today’s insanely long copyright periods: money in politics.

I personally collect a tidy sum every year thanks to copyright. It’s all for things I’ve written in the past 20 years. Most of it (like most writing) will be borderline worthless in another decade or so. I don’t see why it has to be protected till my death, much less for 70 years thereafter. If the publisher hasn’t made a profit already, they wouldn’t have published the books in the first place.

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