Should “Happy Birthday” be Protected by Copyright? | Idea Channel | PBS Digital Studios

Here’s an idea,
you’re not allowed to sing “Happy Birthday.”
“Happy Birthday” is the Guinness Book of World
Records holder for the most performed song ever. You’ve probably
heard more than all of those Justin Bieber,
Katy Perry, Rihanna, and One Direction
songs combined, unless you work
in the food court at the mall, in which
case, I am very sorry. But for all the times your
family and friends have sung an off-key “Happy
Birthday” to you or you’ve sung it to a friend
in a crowded restaurant and they’ve turned
bright red, there’s probably a lot you don’t know. Like, who wrote “Happy
Birthday” and when? It was Patty and
Mildred Hill in 1893. And that you’re
actually not allowed to perform it public
without licensing it, because despite
being 119 years old, it’s still protected
by copyright. Wait, what? I know it’s weird, but it
kind of makes sense, sort of. Let’s talk about
copyright for a second before we decide whether or not
“Happy Birthday” should still be copywrittten or
copyrighted, copywrote. Copyright is complex,
but the aims are noble. One aim is to
incentivize creators for making awesome junk, and
to protect their awesome junk from people who want to
copy their awesome junk, but don’t have the right. That’s where the
name “copyright” comes from actually. In order to copy
something you need to have that right,
that copyright. Another aim is to
provide a system by which those works end
up available to the public, thus increasing the pool of
freely available culture. Once a copyright expires,
that once protected work is then in the public domain. Once a work like James
Joyce’s “Ulysses” or George A. Romero’s
“Night of the Living Dead” is in the public domain,
it’s available to “errbody.” And not just “errbody”
in the clear, but like “errbody”
to remix, remake, alter, perform, go nuts. You could make a novelization
of Night of the Living Ulysses space rock opera ballet
on ice, the movie and charge $45 for it. Or you could make awesome
comics out of classic lit. Link in the description. But once a work is
in the public domain it means the original
creator doesn’t profit as easily, or in the
same way from their creation anymore. Which some people– some
of whom have a lot of money and very much like their
money– think isn’t cool at all, even a little. Not cool. Like imagine if Barbie,
Mickey, and Luke Skywalker were in the public domain. There go the revenue models of
some majorly successful people and businesses, not
to mention someone would probably make some kind
of like terrible Disnified Star Wars crossover– huh? They did– they did what? You have got to be kidding me! That is the stupidest [BLEEP]. To continually protect
these creative works in the US at least, we’ve been
extending copyright terms, thus keeping these things
out of the public domain. Historically, we focused
more on their ownership and profitability than
on adding to the pool of freely available culture. Originally only 14
years, copyright terms grew to 28, 56, and 75 years,
then life of the author plus 50 years, 70
years, 95 years, and in some cases life of
the author plus 120 years. For some perspective, if
this had always been the case you could have been
around for the annexation of the state of Texas and the
copyright on your banjo diddy would just about be expiring. Like Violet in the
“Chocolate Factory,” copyright terms keep growing
and growing and growing. Now “Happy Birthday isn’t
nearly as profitable as Mickey, but it is a
beneficiary– or victim, depending upon how you look
at it– of the same system. Patty and Mildred Hill put
some blood, sweat, and tears into “Good Morning to
All,” the song which gives “Happy Birthday” its melody. They sold it to a
publisher in 1893 who sold his business to
another publisher whose brother took over and then
bought other publishers. At some point in here,
“Good Morning to All” was given “Happy
Birthday’s” lyrics. And thanks to enumerable and
Mercurial cultural forces, it became the song we know and
love, “Happy Birthday to You.” Not long after that, in
the late 20th century, “Happy Birthday’s”
now much larger than it was an 1893 publisher
sold for millions of dollars to the Warner Music group,
still holds the copyright for “Happy Birthday until 2030. That’s right, the people
who own the works for Dio, the Deftones, and DragonForce
own “Happy Birthday” until the year “Ghost in the
Shell Stand Alone Complex” takes place. “Happy Birthday”
rakes in two mil a year for Warner, who at one
point sought royalties for all public
performance, including that by wait staff at
restaurants like Red Lobster, which feels just icky. Holding a 100-year-old piece of
much beloved and shared culture hostage for something like
0.1% of your annual revenue? HBD has certainly come a long
way since that kindergarten classroom in the 1890s. The history and legality
of this whole thing is complicated and
really interesting, but “Happy Birthday” seems
to indicate that maybe we’ve tilted towards one of
copyright’s two original aims. If you want to
know more, there’s a really great paper by Robert
Brauneis about “Happy Birthday” and copyright. Link in the description. But the essential
argument is this, at the point that
ASCAP was shaking down Outback Steakhouse
for protection money like some sort of a
chain restaurant mafia, were Mildred or Patty
or anyone even related to them benefiting at all? And furthermore, is the fact
that “Happy Birthday” is still protected stifling
culture in some way? If the purpose of copyright
is to incentivize creators, while at the same time
ensuring that at some point all culture is available, is
it militaristic in one way and all loosey goosey
in another way? Or is it all gravy? I mean, nothing should be
more aggressively protected then the creative work
that comes from your soul. Right? Not to mention, when someone
makes bank at a hedge fund, they don’t have to spend
their paycheck within 14 years before it becomes
a public resource. Just because something
is a piece of culture, does that mean we have
to treat it differently, allowed at some point to
be consumed or performed by “errbody?” Even, and maybe especially,
the staff at Red Lobster? What do you guys think? Should “Happy Birthday”
be protected by copyright? Let us know in the comments,
and click on my mustache please. Maybe we could all learn a thing
or two from those sandwiches, I mean comments. Let’s see what you guys
had to say about “Adventure Time.” qwertyuiopaaaaaaa7 and a
couple other people brought up “Avatar the Last Airbender”
and “Legend of Korra” as possible contenders for best
animated series of all time. I would agree if there
wasn’t so much space between every series, but I do
legitimately love that show, it’s very good. On a related note,
otakuminion brought up “Animaniacs,” which was one of
my favorite shows growing up, but it’s still kind of in
the Looney Tunes slapstick area of cartoons, and not
really in the punch you in the feels area that
“Avatar the Last Airbender” and “Adventure Time”
are in, so different, a little bit different. RedLlama5, you’re right. I don’t know that
many kids, but I did ask friends who have kids. And while their kids don’t
watch “Adventure Time,” they do. So that has to be
worth something, right? Narutorox85 and goldenimage said
that I was completely off base and that nostalgia has nothing
to do with “Adventure Time’s” popularity, they don’t
experience it even a little. Which is totally fair, can’t
discount personal experience. Ces Leyva, I think Lemongrab
would be my favorite character too if the Snow
Golem didn’t exist. But he’s also very scary. He’s actually terrifying, and
the voice it’s– the poking, weird. There’s also a really great
common thread on Reddit, we’ll put a link
in the description about the “Adventure
Time” episode. The one thing that I kind
of want to respond to is that nothing is
ever “just good.” Goodness is a thing that
happens within the viewer, not a characteristic
of a piece of media. And so for us, it’s really
fun to sort of figure out where that is and
why that happens. That’s our kind of
“endlessly dissecting” I guess is the phrase to use. But you should check it out. It’s a very good comment thread.

Maurice Vega

100 Responses

  1. Some years from now, the English language will be copyrighted as well and then you'll finally have to get up off your ass and create a new one yourself, you lazy bums! You think you can just make money off of it and communicate effectively with other language pirates without paying for it? What is this? Christmas all year? 

  2. Copyrights should not extend for more than 10 years after the death of a materials creator. Unless the material has been sold in it's entirety to a still active company like Warner Brothers, Disney, EMI, etc etc. In which case the copyright remains valid and protected for as long as the company is still in business. Should a company shut down, then the material is copyrighted for no more than 10 years after the company closes it's doors. After which the material should become public domain.

  3. Ironically the music for that 'you wouldn't steal a car' copyright ad was itself stolen from. So even the makers of the copyright ads are thieves. 

  4. Disney has made quite enough money off of Mickey. they don't need the copyright. and in fact, they would still make money from Mickey without it. Not to mention from their princesses and other media.
    Meanwhile, culture is a cultural resource. IMO, copyright should end when the creator dies, becomes sustainably wealthy, or after 20 years, whichever comes first.

  5. I've commented on a reply that I don't know what the best solution is, but I do find it relatively ironic that one of the biggest companies responsible for the extension of copyright (at least from what I've heard elsewhere) is the Disney corporation, most of whose movies, from Snow White to Frozen, are based off of old fairy tales that are in the public domain.

    I'm a big fan of the Disney Corporation, but I wonder if this nearly perpetual extension of copyright is actually stifling the ability of other highly talented artists who could be the next Walt Disneys from actually accomplishing their dreams.

  6. I thought that singing the song with a name would be under the Fair Use law, technically a "Remix/Parody"

  7. Don't u think distribution companies such as the warner brothers earn enough money, from TV channels and cinemas ect buying licences to play the media?

  8. No copyright should only extend for for 20 to 30 years.  I that time the author will make the majority of the money for the work and this money can be passed down to the heirs, in other words the person who has done the work of creation we gain the benefits for that creation.  If copyright extended as you say for "10 years after the death of a materials creator. Unless the material has been sold in it's entirety to a still active company " there are many items we would not have today like radios, modern television, repeating firearms or internal combustion engines (the thing that powers your car).  All of these required innovation not invention to get to the point they are at today and that is what copyright in it's modern form and modern limit kills.  Also I'd totally like to see a remake of episodes 1 thru 3 in my life time that doesn't suck and guess with modern copyright law that ain't going to happen but maybe in 120 or more years it will.  Fuck you Disney

  9. This makes me think of the some of the listed reason I found for South Korea Internet speed versus the United States. South Korea ISP share infrastructure while in the U.S. you may have multiple lines for service from different providers but can they can't share the network total load that could be shared; thereby bring down overhead cost. However to fair South Korea is smaller than California, so it explains the speed by shorter distance (hence less impedance of resistance and data loss to heat) of cable lines and ping/response times between servers and clients.

  10. A work's/franchise's greatness often arises out of it's popularity and fandom. I feel those works are owed to the culture at large because of that.

  11. They didn't protect their copyright adequately. Thus it should lose the copyright.
    It's that simple in this case isn't it?

  12. Copyright, if we must keep it around, should only last 20 years or until all the authors are dead, whichever comes first. Companies, however, should not be able to hold copyright at all. The copyright belongs to the individual people who created the work, and cannot be transferred.

    Now, I have nothing against a company enforcing copyright on an author's behalf, provided the author still makes several times more from royalties than they pay the company to enforce their copyright.

  13. I made a video discussing Fair Use and how it's abused on YouTube, please share and get the word out.

    Copyright Holders are ABUSING YouTube and STRANGLING Content Creators

  14. You can only own atoms and molecules.

    You can't own ideas.  Idea's don't exist in the same was material exists.

    Problem solved.

  15. Here’s an idea: all work is parody as all work created could only ever have been an imitation of the world around it at the point of creation. Since all created work must in a sense subvert existing reality by simple virtue of its existence, thus all art is a parody and all work is thus exempt from copyright.

  16. So if "Happy birthday" is copyrighted. Would that mean it's illegal to use it in my videoes at YouTube? The copyright goes to far. That kinda sucks… -_-

  17. Yeah, but if you fart out one popular thing in your miserable life that thing shouldn't be protected for almost 200 years. That's not the point of copyright… that's not an incentive for anything, well maybe for farting out one good thing and then shoving a thumb up your ass.

  18. I like how after an artists death the copyright extends so that their family, especially dependents can still benefit from residuals. However, I think that it needs to be limited. 119 years is long enough. That work no matter how profitable should be in the public domain.

  19. I think it would make sense if other people are allowed to use copyrighted material after it expires, but not profit from it. This way it can be shared and added to throughout culture and still allow the owner something from it.

  20. woah. I was not expecting that mustache 😛 Also I have no idea why happy birthday is copyrighted for a logical standpoint 🙂

  21. So it's recently been discovered that "Happy Birthday" was public domain all along and Warner Music might have been hiding the fact:

  22. BREAKING NEWS 🙂 "Happy Birthday to You" belongs in the public domain now. See the results of court case rupa marya vs warner/chappell

  23. This video is awesome. We used it as the attention getter with 7th grade students to start a dialogue regarding creator's rights and fair use. Great work.

  24. To be honest I don't think it's fair towards the two ladies and I don't think it's fair towards World because one The world song that daily so i'm pretty sure right now as I'm typing somebody saying happy birthday to somebody singing it and it no fair to towards those ladies to be known as hey I created a beat and now everybody in the world even when I'm dead had to pay to sing that song that's not fair to the People and that's not fair to those two ladies !!!"just to be Honest"!!!!!!

  25. One of the problems with copyright and other intellectual property laws is people don't understand them. For example, one of the reasons that copyright lasts as long as it does is because Disney petitioned to extend it when the cartoon "Steamboat Willie" was going to enter into the public domain. The reason? To protect the character of Mickey Mouse. Here's the thing: they didn't have to do it. Because Mickey Mouse is not copyrighted. Copyright is used to protect works like songs, stories, articles, etc. So, they really just sought to protect one cartoon that no one probably wanted to steal anyway. Now, the character of Mickey Mouse is trademarked. Trademark is used to protect brands, characters, logos and the like. Trademark has no set expiration date. It lasts as long as an entity continues using that trademark. In fact, trademark has been used to circumvent copyright before. ERB, Inc. is a company started by the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs to protect the trademark of his characters like Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Because of the trademark, even though the earliest stories about these characters are technically in the public domain, the rights still need to be licensed from ERB, Inc if you want to make a Tarzan or John Carter movie. So, since Disney never really stops making Mickey Mouse stuff, they really don't have anything to worry about.

  26. Hey guys, did you know that the words "Common Sense" should be copyrighted by Thomas Paine following the same logic as copyrighting "Happy Birthday"? People today, I swear. It's common sense to rule these people as mentally challenged if they stoop as low as banning the singing of Happy Birthday without a license. I'll sing whatever the fuck I want, and putting the word "react" in my video on this will not stop me.

  27. Copyright was created to end the Industrial Revolution. The idea was to copyright all products so they could no longer be produced. Now that there is a movement against copyright it is to be hoped that future generations will see its stupidity. Copyright never brought me anything. I wrote an article and some idiot international group copied it and pasted it on their network and used it to call me names and never asked me for permission if they would – just like any online atheist.

  28. So,  I can get arrested for just singing "Happy Birthday to you"? Wowww…. thanks fur da legal notice…. yeahhhhhh :sarcasm:

  29. Here is my two cents about the subject of copyright and the happy birthday song. Copyright is meant to stop people making money off other people's work without their permission and to make sure no one steals credit for the creation of the work in question.

    But here is the thing. If u create something and you get that creation protected by patent or copyright laws. THEY SHOULD BE relinquished WHEN U FUCKING DIE!!!!!

    It is stupid and ignorant to believe that it is okay to keep copyright on the works of a dead person for generations after they are dead…. For obvious reasons the law is no longer protecting them, (because they are fucking dead) how is the copyright helping a dead person? The answer is it doesn't.

    It is stupid that we can't sing happy birthday, it is a part of American culture and belongs to the American people, not some corporate asshole who try's to keep the works of a dead person safe from exploitation.

  30. Did anyone see the Aqua Teen Hunger Force episode called "Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary?". It deals with copyrighting the birthday song and robotic banjo playing scorpions and Zakk Wylde.

  31. I want to somehow own the rights to the Wilhelm scream, so I can stop people from putting it in movies or else pay me a hefty fee.

  32. I like 28 years. Make something. If it's really good you can live off it for 30 years. Then you've got to make something new. No one likes an artist that doesn't make art.

  33. Mark Twain thought the rights should continue in perpetuity to the heirs, but he was basically bad at business and concerned about his daughters. I think we should start saying no to Disney and the like and stop extending copyright. Disney seems to me to be a particularly egregious all-engulfing monster, absorbing other franchises like Star Wars and Winnie the Pooh…

  34. Copyright is the epitome of a greedy society that likes to "own" EVERY SINGLE THING , suppressing creative expression and wide access to art by shoving the idea of capitalism down not-so-rich people's throat. Disgusting corporate pigs.


  35. Even if happy birthday was copyrighted people will still be able to sing it as usual. All copyright songs are allowed to be something. And your mustache is too long. Either do the full monte with the goatee or just a regular mustache but not a mustache half Monte.
    Actually I take that back I work at a restaurant that couldn't sing happy birthday. That's why restaurants that sing Happy Birthday sing a different version because the original version is copyrighted. So let me ask this if I want to use the song who would I ask for permission?

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