Tag Archives: Happy Birthday to You

They shall overcome: Classic song’s copyright is invalidated by non-IP attorneys

The iconic protest song, “We Shall Overcome,” is now in the public domain after a small team of primarily non-IP lawyers succeeded in having its copyright invalidated.  

The settlement with publisher Ludlow Music, according to Law360, “which for decades charged fees for use of the civil rights anthem — came after nearly two years of class action litigation aimed at freeing the song from copyright protection.”

The suit, filed by the filmmakers behind “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and others who wanted to use the song, argued that “Overcome” was merely a repackaging of a century-old African-American spiritual, meaning it couldn’t be locked up with a copyright. Last fall, a New York    judge agreed.

Under the terms of the deal, Ludlow Music will return the licensing fees paid by the plaintiffs and will no longer claim a copyright to the song. The tune, the publisher said, will be “hereafter dedicated to the public domain.”

Free at Last

The copyright invalidation of “Overcome” is the latest victory for lawyers from Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz LLP, whose focus is social justice, consumer protection and labor law, reported the newsletter, and is rapidly becoming the authority for lawsuits aimed at proving that a famous old song should be in the public domain.

Those lawyers, Randall S. Newman and Mark C. Rifkin, famously won a court order in 2015 over the ubiquitous “Happy Birthday to You,” eventually securing a similar public domain agreement and $14 million in repaid licensing fees. That victory led to the “Overcome” case, as well as another pending case challenging the copyright to “This Land Is Your Land.”

In a telephone interview with Law360, Newman and Rifkin said they hadn’t exactly set out to corner the market on freeing famous songs — neither had done much copyright work prior to these cases — but that they welcomed their newfound niche.

“Please don’t call us the caped crusaders of copyright,” Rifkin joked. “But somebody has to hold owners accountable for misuse of a copyright like we saw in these cases.”

For the full Law360 story and links, go here. 

Image source: eurweb.com; cdandlp.com

“Happy Birthday” is an orphan copyright, not yet public domain

U.S. District Judge George H. King’s ruling earlier this week means that “Happy Birthday to You” is now what’s known as an “orphan work” — a copyrighted work that’s so old that nobody knows who to pay in order to use it legally.

It is not necessarily in the public domain but may be by default.

As expertly reported in Law 360, nobody is sure who, if anyone, owns “Happy Birthday” if Warner Music doesn’t. Did the Hills [original owners] have heirs who could claim ownership? Did they have business partners who could have passed rights along?

“The ruling highlights a current issue that many in the copyright field complain about,” attorney Naomi Jane Gray said. “Copyright now lasts so long that it can be very difficult to find the author in order to even try to ask them for permission to legitimately use their work.”

$2 Million in Annual Royalties

“While it might come as a surprise to most that anybody claimed to ‘own’ the ubiquitous birthday song,” reported Law 360, “Warner/Chappell had for years been quietly doing just that, raking in an estimated $2 million a year in licensing fees from filmmakers and C9E3AA0F864-184002687952B1A0FF62741others.

“Warner/Chappell, the publishing unit of Warner Music Group, long claimed that it had inherited a 1935 copyright for the song from a company it purchased in 1988, but a group of filmmakers and artists who paid those licensing fees challenged that claim in court in 2013. They said they’d found new documentary evidence that cast doubt on Warner’s claim and that they wanted their money back.

“On Tuesday, they won big. A California federal judge ruled that Warner’s predecessor company — Summy Co., which purportedly acquired the rights from the song’s original authors — had only acquired the rights to the song’s melody, which had long since passed into the public domain.”

As for the lyrics? There was no proof that Summy had ever actually acquired them, meaning Warner never owned them either.

For the full analysis go here.

Image source: http://www.ohmygoodness.com


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