Happy birthday and monkey selfies — why copyright matters (Wired UK)

Self-portrait by the depicted Macaca nigra female licensed under Public Domain via Commons

This week, a California judge ruled that none of the companies claiming ownership of Happy Birthday to You ever had any right to it at all. And they may have to pay back some hefty royalties.

The world’s most recognised song originally appeared as Good Morning to All, written by Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893. While that version has been in the public domain for decades, Warner/Chappell music has claimed ownership of the Happy Birthday version since 1988, when it bought the ditty as part of Birch Tree Group’s holdings. Birch Tree Group was the successor to Clayton F. Summy Company, which published the Hill sisters’ original song in a book called Song Stories for the Kindergarten. That publication deal assigned Summy the copyright of all the songs in the book.

The Summy Company later registered copyright in 1935 for an arrangement of the song with the same music and the now-familiar birthday-themed lyrics, crediting Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman as the writers. However, according to court documents, the first appearance of the Happy Birthday lyrics was in a 1911 book titled The Elementary Worker and His Work, which gives no credit to anyone for the lyrics, but mentions that the song shares its music with Good Morning.

Ever since 1935, the Birch Tree Group — and later Warner — insisted on royalty payments for all performances of the song for business purposes, from waiters serenading customers to musical greetings cards and TV and film use. According to some estimates, the song brings in as much as $2 million (£1.3 million) a year for Warner Music.

Warner may now have to pay back decades worth of such payments after US district judge George H King ruled the Summy Company’s original copyright only ever applied to the specific arrangement it published, and not to the Happy Birthday lyrics. King ruled there was no evidence Summy had ever acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics, and it now appears the song is safely in the public domain.

And then there’s the case of the monkey selfie. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has gone to court to assign an endangered monkey copyright over its own selfie. PETA is suing wildlife photographer David J. Slater on behalf of a macaque named Naruto, which famously took a picture of itself when Slater left his camera unattended.

PETA isn’t the only organisation with a horse in this race. The Wikimedia Foundation claims that, as animals can’t own copyright, the photo is by definition in the public domain. Slater says that the Foundation’s distribution of the photo, which he claims to own, is preventing him from making any profit from the image.

Analysts feel that US law is ultimately likely to come down on Wikimedia’s side, rather than assigning ownership to either Slater or Naruto. It’s not even necessarily the case that humans get to claim ownership of their own self-portraits. Earlier this year, artist Richard Prince sold prints of other people’s Instagram photo posts for $100,000 (£65,300), maintaining that his incorporation of the original works in his art constituted fair use.

Legal retaliation against copyright violators doesn’t always go to plan, either, as Universal Pictures France found when it sent Google a copyright takedown notice for links to a pirated version of its movie Jurassic WorldOne of the addresses of the bootlegged flick was, otherwise known as “localhost”, or “home” to network users everywhere. Universal was asking for the removal of pirated content that it had detected on its own network.

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23 September 2015 | 11:35 am – Source: wired.co.uk


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