There was a time – and it may still be the case – when, because it was too expensive to do so, you could not sing “Happy Birthday To You” on a television show. Somebody wrote the “Happy Birthday” song, and if you used it in your production, you were obligated to pay them – or, more accurately, whoever currently owned the rights to the song – a royalty.
(Lyrically, it is not really much of a song – only four lines long, three and a half lines of which are exactly the same, plus a “dear (insert Birthday Person’s name in “Line Three”), but somebody made it up, and the law requires compensation.)
To avoid this payment, which was not insubstantial – Wikipedia reports that “The documentary film The Corporation states that Warner/Chappell charges $10,000 for the song to appear in a film” – budget conscious TV shows would regularly use “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” for their birthday celebrations, ignoring the fact that “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” was last heard with any frequency emanating from the trenches during World War I.
Well done, Old Chap. You stormed the Hun’s position, and only lost an arm, a leg and an eye. That deserves a hearty, ‘For He’s A…’, wouldn’t you say, boys?
From a legal standpoint, “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” falls into the category known as “Public Domain.” The idea behind “Public Domain” is that you can compose a song, or any other work of art, and since that work is the product of your effort and ability, you should be compensated for having done so.
But not forever.
The law requires that, after a mandated period of time, the creator of the work – be it War and Peace or “Happy Birthday To You” – loses their ownership rights, and the work then falls into “Public Domain.”
“Public Domain” music, such as “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” can then be used free of charge. That’s why it’s become the “go-to” birthday accompaniment on TV shows. It doesn’t cost you a dime.
Oh, come now. Certainly some ‘Man Hours’ went into the composition of ‘For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow.’ It seems only fair that its composer be duly compensated.
Whyever not, for heaven’s sake!
Hells Bells! Is that what we choked on mustard gas for? I suppose it must be!
It is doubtful that you watch as many cowboy movies as I do, and unlikely with equal scrupulosity. Whenever I tune in, I like to play this little game with myself. It’s called, “Guess The Saloon Song.”
A cowpoke ambles over to the local saloon. In the distance, we hear the Piano Man, tinklin’ out a tune. At first, you can barely make it out. Then, as the cowpoke sashays through the swinging doors, and is hit by the melody full blast,
It’s time to play…
”Guess the Saloon Song!”
Will it be “Camptown Races”? “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”, or the softly mellifluous, “Beautiful Dreamer.”
It’s actually not that tough of a contest. Invariably, it is one of those three.
Stephen Foster wrote two of those songs – “Camptown Races” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Every time one of them gets played – and you can throw in “Oh! Susanna” and “Jeanie, With The Light Brown Hair” – I imagine, somewhere, there’s a Stephen Foster descendant, receiving no payment for his ancestor’s compositions going,
Since 1924 (I looked it up), as the horses make their way towards the starting gate for the latest running of the Kentucky Derby, the University of Louisville Marching Band anoints the moment with the plantation-conjuring nostalgia of “My Old Kentucky Home.” And across the country, annoyed Stephen Foster scions are thinking,
“Shouldn’t we be getting something for that?”
“Well why, by all that’s holy in the Confederacy, not?”
Grits and gravy! Those Northerners have done it to us again!
The rationale behind this principle is that, in law, there is no such thing as property – Read: ownership – of ideas. You make your money for your efforts. And then, when your copyright period runs out…
This concept has recognizable value in the pharmaceutical industry, where, a new pill is patented, its originators profit exclusively from their discovery for a period of time, and then the patent expires – this just happened with the cholesterol pill Lipitor – and the rights to the formula become “generic” – which is the “Public Domain” of the pill world.
At that point, for example Lipitor’s originator, Pfizer, loses its monopoly, and other companies are permitted to use the Lipitor recipe to produce their own pill. This creates competition, which drives down the price, the lower price resulting in the pill – and its benefits – being more readily available.
That one makes sense. But when it’s applied in the same manner to works of art, it doesn’t. What monopoly does the termination of a book’s copyright break up? Having ended Mark Twain’s stranglehold, can another writer now sit down and write the generic version of Huckleberry Finn?
It doesn’t make sense. The originator of a book or a play or a song receives money, and then, at some legislatively determined end-point, it stops Though, in the case of books, the publisher continues to profit.
And they didn’t write anything!
Once, I used to resent the requirement of having to pay to use “Happy Birthday To You.” Today, I think anyone who creates something should be compensated “in perpetuity”, which means forever.
Call it a “flip-flop” if you will.
But it’s a flop in the right direction.