The Happy Birthday Paradox

According to Robert Brauneis, the “world’s most popular song”–Happy Birthday–“generates an estimated $2 million per year.” Brauneis’ new paper on the song reveals the fascinating duality of copyright protection:

The song that became “Happy Birthday to You,” originally written with different lyrics as “Good Morning to All,” was the product of intense creative labor, undertaken with copyright protection in mind. However, it is almost certainly no longer under copyright, due to a lack of evidence about who wrote the words; defective copyright notice; and a failure to file a proper renewal application.

This reminds me of a larger “Copyright Paradox” that Neil Netanel’s new book explores:

Copyright law provides a vital economic incentive for the creation and distribution of much of the literature, commentary, music, art, and film that makes up our public discourse. Yet copyright also burdens speech. We often copy or build upon another’s words, images, or music to convey our own ideas effectively. We can’t do that if a copyright holder withholds permission or insists upon a license fee that is beyond our means.

Thank goodness for fair use.

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