24th September 2015
The decision of the US District Court in California regarding the copyright in the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” is welcome and sensible.
The enforcement and collection of royalties for “Happy Birthday” has been, in my opinion (and here I am not implying anything criminal), little more than a racket. A lawful racket, but effectively a racket all the same.
But it should be clear what the court ruled on, and did not rule on.
The court ruled that Warner Chappell could not establish that it had copyright in the lyrics to the song. (The parties agreed that the melody was already public domain, and so the judge did not decide that point either, as it was not in contention.)
What the court did not decide (and was careful not to decide) was whether the lyrics were “public domain”. The judgment left open the possibility – perhaps a theoretical one – that somebody somewhere had copyright in the lyrics.
It may be that the practical consequence of the ruling is that the words to “Happy Birthday” can be treated as now being public domain; but that is not what the court said or decided.
BREAKING: Federal judge rules ‘Happy Birthday’ song is public domain, denies publisher’s copyright claim.
— The Associated Press (@AP) September 23, 2015
“Breaking” but not correct.
US judge rules Happy Birthday is public domain, throws out copyright claim http://t.co/UfyGktrK6n
— The Guardian (@guardian) September 23, 2015
Federal judge rules "Happy Birthday" song in public domain http://t.co/oEDiA3oxcT
— TIME (@TIME) September 23, 2015
The song "Happy Birthday" is officially in the public domain http://t.co/UytnSOoEsE
— VICE (@VICE) September 23, 2015
And nope – no it isn’t, “officially” or otherwise.
What appears to have happened is that the plaintiff lawyers’ press release (saying that the song could now be treated as if it was public domain – which is a fair opinion, but not what the court actually said) or some early news report got converted by somebody into saying that the court had ruled that the song was now public domain.
And then the media just copied and repeated each other.
Of course, the “does-it-matter-brigade” have a point; it is not the greatest error, and it may be effectively correct, though not strictly correct, to say the song is now in the public domain.
But legal accuracy is important, especially when reporting what the courts do and do not say, and it is reasonable to expect news media to report such things correctly; and in this case, both the judgment and accurate reporting were available. There was no excuse for so much of the media to get this one wrong.
Never take news reports of legal things at face value; always look at the original sources if you can.
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