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Happy birthday to you

Sometimes lawsuits have the effect of turning widespread assumptions upside down. That was certainly the case with the decision this week by a district judge in the Central District of California that Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. never had a valid copyright interest in the lyrics to one of the most famous songs in history. Many people are surprised to learn that “Happy Birthday to You” is even subject to a copyright claim, but for those in the entertainment industry, it is common knowledge that Warner/Chappell has been collecting substantial royalties for decades on every performance of this song on stage, movies and television.

Warner/Chappell relied on a claim of right that most in the industry presumed was valid, but when it was subjected to serious investigation in this lawsuit, the claim’s central assumptions collapsed. Often a lawsuit turns into an historical investigation, piecing together documents and testimony to try to create a coherent narrative. In this case, piecing together the historical narrative was more difficult than usual because Warner/Chappell’s untested claim of right was based on historical facts and documents beginning more than 100 years ago. Based on that record, it could be determined that the sisters Mildred and Patty Hill composed the familiar tune before 1893, the original lyrics to which were “Good Morning to You.” The origin of the variation “Happy Birthday to You” is less clear, but what the court found as an undisputed fact was that the music publisher that eventually registered the copyright never validly acquired title to those lyrics. Since the music had already passed into the public domain, this music publisher may only have owned the rights to a particular piano arrangement.

Lawsuits teach us that parties may sometimes place too much stock in claims of right, even those they have been asserting without question for many years. And if they demand too much for honoring those rights, they may learn to their chagrin that they never existed in the first place.

Compare this story to that of Martin Shkreli, the investor who became more famous than he bargained for when the world learned that he had purchased the rights to the drug Daraprim, and then jacked up the price per pill from $13.50 to $750.00. In this case, Shkreli may have had a perfect legal right, and perhaps even an economic justification, for his actions, but he sparked such a hostile reaction, that he soon rescinded the decision to impose such a drastic price increase. So even a valid claim of right sometimes will not stand the test of public disapproval.

We also learned the shocking story this week of Volkswagen’s deceit of government regulators and the public, by programming its diesel engine software only to engage full emissions controls while the engines were being tested. Volkswagen engineers cleverly figured out how to give their customers better performance by producing more pollution than the regulators were able to test for. I read somewhere that an argument could be made that Volkswagen complied with a literal reading of statutory language that might only have required that the engines comply with environmental regulations while the tests are being run. But does that matter? In this case it seems more likely that the spirit of the law will prevail, and Volkswagen has already begun to pay dearly for its cheating.

So not such a happy week for those who from greed or arrogance try to push their rights farther than the public will bear. But the rest of us can gain some freedom and comfort not only in being able henceforth to perform a favorite song with impunity, but also knowing that there are limits to how much abusers can get away with.

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