The Future of “Happy Birthday” Might Be a Present to Us All, Because of Its Past.
As a rule—specifically Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 8(a)(2)—a pleading that states a claim for relief must contain… a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Moreover, each allegation must be simple, concise, and direct. In other words, when drafting a federal complaint—say, for relief related to copyright law—get to the point, and quickly. You don’t have to go into excruciating detail when you set forth the facts that underlie your claim; indeed, some judges will be glad if you don’t.
[NB: Sound familiar? See the previous LOC post on a very related topic. This is a complete coincidence; Matthew and I do not coordinate posts and in fact barely speak since he forgot my birthday last year. No excuse, either—it was in the public domain. –RDC]
But sometimes setting forth the facts in extremely excruciating detail can have a powerful psychological effect. And if you’re going to provide the court—and, in turn, the public—with a comprehensive recitation of facts that start way back in 1893, a terrific way to marshal those facts is to produce a documentary movie, in the course of which you seek to use a song that everyone in the world knows, only to be told that you have to pay to license it for use in your movie, which advice prompts you to sue for declaratory judgment by way of a putative class action on behalf of yourself and all others similarly situated.
Unless you’ve been off-planet this past week, you know that I’m referring to the lawsuit filed on June 13 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by Good Morning To You Productions Corp. seeking a declaration that defendant Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., despite what it claims, does not hold the copyright to the most popular song of the 20th century (according to a 1999 press release by ASCAP, which was released a year early, it would seem): Happy Birthday to You. And the reason why Warner/Chappell does not own the copyright—and have the prerogative to license its use—is because…
…well, no, you really should read the complaint. It’s a good story, told in just under 100 simple, concise, direct paragraphs. The gist of it is that the song as we know it came together in pieces, each of which entered the public domain long ago.
Accordingly, Warner/Chappell has been demanding and collecting fees to license something it doesn’t own. Because we own it. You and I and everyone we know.