Tree-Hugging Dirt Worship

November 24, 2012

“Happy Birthday” Copyright Protects Legacy of Plagiarism

I’ve been investigating some old folk tunes to see which ones are in the public domain. “Goodnight Irene” and “The Pines” still sound good after all these years, but is it lawful for me to self-publish my own covers of these tunes, or is a recording house going to sue me into a lifetime of poverty for such bold theft?

The Public Domain Information Project publishes a little list of public domain songs, which could helpfully confirm that a work is out of copyright. “Goodnight Irene,” unfortunately, is not on there. I was intrigued to discover “Good Morning Children,” a song that goes:

Good morning to you,
good morning to you,
good morning dear children,
good morning to all.

Well, I can only imagine that being sung to one particular tune. Wikipedia and Google were able to flesh out the picture for me, no problem.

The origins of “Happy Birthday” can be traced back all the way to 1859. Horace Waters, remembered mainly as a piano maker, published a little tune called “Happy Greeting to All.” Follow the link and press the “play” button to hear the tune.

Happy Greeting To You sheet music

The chorus is recognizable as being much like “Happy Birthday,” and its lyrics follow the same repeating, repetitious, redundant pattern. Waters went on to publish “Goodnight to You All,” and, in 1875, “Happy New Year to All.” What a creative dynamo!

An aside:

Waters ripping off himself probably didn’t look too odd at the time, when lots of music was written through the folk process. To write a song, you “stole” someone else’s song (or your own!), rewrote the lyrics, and adjusted the music to suit your own playing style and band setup. As copyright enforcement became stricter and the public domain receded into the past, folk songwriting has been effectively outlawed. Our moral sense of a song being “ripped off” has even adjusted to harmonize with the law.

Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail” and “Travellin’ Riverside Blues” strike me as a couple of folk process tunes that no one would dare to call unoriginal, although “Hellhound” resembles Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” and “Riverside” is a version of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” a song that “came out of the cotton fields.” You can easily find all of these songs on Youtube, if you’re inclined.

The modern songwriting process must treat each piece as original and unrelated to any other song, forged from the collision of beats, chords and melodic riffs in massive high-energy studio cyclotrons, and yet the result is only about as good as Britney Spears.

“Happy Greeting to All”or a variant was picked up by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, who rewrote it as “Good Morning to All” for Mildred’s kindergarten class. The sisters published their song without the birthday lyrics in 1893. According to legend, the kids at school were so enthralled by the song that they in turn reworked it into “Happy Birthday” for singing at parties.  It saw print numerous times, and by 1924 the birthday lyrics were printed with it as an alternate verse. However, no one can name the person who wrote the birthday lyrics any more than we can know which cowboy first sang “Bury Me not on the Lone Prairie.”

In the early 1930’s, “Happy Birthday” was everywhere, being delivered by singing telegram and even sung on the Broadway stage. A third Hill sister, Jessica, decided that she’d had enough of people using her sisters’ song, and she was going to act to protect it. In 1935, the publisher of “Good Morning to All” copyrighted “Happy Birthday to You,” and even formed a new company specifically to enforce that copyright. The supposed composer of “Happy Birthday to You” was Preston Ware Orem, a piano-playing songwriter best known for weaving American Indian themes into orchestral music. Somehow the deal to protect the Hill sisters’ work included giving up their claim on authorship. Although everybody was stealing “Happy Birthday,” Orem looks to have crossed a line into plagiarism by actually taking credit for someone else’s song.

When a work is published, it is automatically copyrighted unless the author specifies a different license (such as the Creative Commons license, or simply releasing the work into the public domain.) Thus, the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” were copyrighted in 1924, not 1935, and the melody copyrighted 1893 at the latest. The publisher’s copyright and its extensions were not valid… not only because the company tried to copyright a song already copyrighted with a different composer’s name attached, but also because authorship of the lyrics is just plain unclear (neither of the songwriting Hills ever specifically claimed to have written the birthday verse.)

The phony 1935 copyright is now held by Warner Music Group, which collects about $2 million per year taxing the most-recognized song in the English language. Legal scholars view the copyright as invalid, yet artists are not exactly encouraged to challenge the music group and its Goliath parent.

And so “Happy Birthday to You” becomes a glaring example of how intellectual property law can be twisted to work against the interests of artists and instead promote the interests of those who already have some money. Copyright laws have also limited the techniques available to artists, from the folk writing process to sampling, and in their current form they constitute a real cultural attack. Joe Hill wouldn’t be framed for murder and executed today, they’d lock him up forever for copyright infringement. Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about the Civil Rights movement, was actually held back from going to video for several years, partly because of a scene which featured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a birthday cake.

“Happy Birthday to You” is not under any legitimate copyright. It is rightfully part of the common heritage of all people.

Advertisements

4 Comments »

  1. Many people want to increase their muscle mass and
    create a toned, developed body that is not only aesthetically pleasing,
    but strong and healthy as well. These days there are virtually 1000’s of guys and females who are seeking to create muscle mass and strip off body body fat in purchase to transform the way their bodies’
    glimpse and really feel. In general, there is no doubt that the program
    Kyle Leon is a popular muscle building system for
    a good reason and this is definitely one of the most individual nutrients
    and online training programs today.

    Comment by Somanabolic Muscle Maximizer Results — May 20, 2013 @ 11:55 am

  2. I have read a few just right stuff here. Certainly worth bookmarking for revisiting.
    I wonder how so much effort you set to make such
    a magnificent informative web site.

    Comment by michigan — May 25, 2014 @ 3:21 pm

  3. It’s very effortless to find out any topic on web as compared to
    books, as I found this post at this website.

    Comment by Http://Resepmasakan123.Com — July 31, 2014 @ 1:06 pm

  4. The goal of a large portion of those individuals is to
    increase muscles, an endeavour that calls for plenty of dedication and willpower.

    There will likely be times whenever you won’t be able to do it nevertheless it should be your aim.
    This new plan is created for guys who’re serious about getting penetrating their body building level
    and is certainly not made for guys who are just planning to work out
    once a week during the weekends.

    Comment by Kristen — December 27, 2014 @ 5:54 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.