Friday, June 14, 2013

Warner Chappell faces unhappy returns

Warner Chappell has had a nice little business going over the last few years, collecting money from the rights it owned to the song Happy Birthday. Even Nancy Reagan singing it to Ronnie once got a terse demand for cash dispatched to broadcasting networks.

Except... maybe they don't own the rights at all. Filmaker Jennifer Nelson was asked to pay to include the song in a documentary she was making. But rather than hand over the cash - USD1500! - she started to dig. And she's not sure the song belongs in copyright:

Nelson's company Good Morning to You Productions Corp claimed: "Irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating to 1893, shows that the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, if there ever was a valid copyright to any part of the song, expired no later than 1921". Their class-action lawsuit, filed on 13 June, directly challenges Warner/Chappell's ownership of the song, whereby the publishers collect thousands of dollars every time a film, TV show or musical act buys a licence to perform it.
It could be expensive for Warner Chappell if a judgement goes against them - they'll have to return all that cash they've been raking in for years; and it could be as much as fifty million dollars.