Happy ending for “Happy Birthday”

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After years of avoiding it, film-makers and performers can now include “Happy Birthday To You” in their work without paying a huge music corporation for the privilege.

God knows why, but I follow stories about music copyright sort of keenly.  It’s not like I have any personal interest, it’s just a curiosity.

Today’s news that a US judge has ruled on “Happy Birthday To You” inevitably caught my eye.

For years, Warner/Chappel Music has been collecting royalties for public, commercial performances of the popular song, which was written by two Kentucky sisters in 1893 and published in a collection of songs for kindergarten children.  Over the years, the rights ended up with the Warner corporation who now must pay back $14 million that it has collected in royalties.

For while the tune remained the same, the lyrics had changed.  The original was a welcome song for children to sing at the start of the school day: “Good morning to you, Good morning to all…”

US district judge, George King, ruled that the tune had long been in the public domain – i.e. no longer subject to copyright rules.  The lyrics were less certain.  The birthday words did not appear in print until 1911; it was not until the 1930s that Patty Hill (one of the two sisters) claimed to have written them at the same time as the “Good Morning” lyrics.

Anyway, King ruled that Warner/Chappel no longer had any claim over the song and must pay back money collected.

Variations of “Happy Birthday To You” are sung around the world in different languages.

  • In Spanish it’s Cumpleaños Feliz
  • Portuguese, Parabéns par Vocé, 
  • German Zum Geburstag Viel Glück
  • Italian: Tanti auguri a te

And so on.

(According to Wikipedia, the Swedes sing a version that goes, Har Den åran Idag…only I have never heard it (and I have been to a few Swedish birthday parties.) Instead they sing Ja, må han live, expressing the hope that the celebrant will live to be 100.)

Back to copyright: my favourite copyright story again involves a schoolteacher, this one in Australia.  In 1932, Marion Sinclair wrote Kookaburra (“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…” etc) the tune of which was substantially used in the worldwide hit Down Under by the Aussie band Men At Work. (It’s the flute part: you can’t miss it).

The supposed copyright infringement did not come to light until 2008.  Larrikin Music, who owned the rights, had not noticed the infringement, and began legal proceedings.  The protracted case which ensued cost Men At Work, and especially the song’s composer Colin Hay, a very substantial sum.

He has now rewritten the song with a new flute part.  Sadly, it’s not as good.

 

 

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