'Happy Birthday' for All: Filmmaker Aims to Free Song From Copyright Grip

Eriq Gardner , , Jun 13, 2013
Commentary by Stephen Downes

Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. Yet a company that claims it holds the 'rights' to Sherlock Holmes makes threats and enforces ownership by sending messages like this: "do not expect to see it offered for sale by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and similar retailers. We work with those company’s routinely to weed out unlicensed uses of Sherlock Holmes from their offerings, and will not hesitate to do so with your book as well." Zorro is public domain. And yet a publishers "have built a licensing empire out of smoke and mirrors." But the biggest scam of all may be the putative copyright over "Happy Birthday." Evidence? "The public began singing 'Happy Birthday to You' no later than the early 1900s." As evidence, the lawsuit cites a January 1901 edition of an Indiana school journal that described children singing the words 'happy birthday to you.'" And yet a company has been asserting a copyright for years, based on a 1924 songbook and a 1935 piano arrangement.

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