THE TV — There is Dennis Rodman crooning “Happy Birthday” to North Korean dictator and the last person invited to a family reunion, Kim Jong Un. I hope the former NBA star took along his checkbook. You see, the “Happy Birthday Song” is copyrighted, private property, and royalties are collected. I didn’t know that. Did you? Same situation when you sing the official song of the U.S. Coast Guard if you use any lyrics written after 1922. God Bless America generates royalties but only for the Scouts.
As we can see, there is a lot going on in the music world, and we should know it, or get hit up by copyright (shouldn’t it be copywrite?) lawyers wanting our money. Let’s start with Happy Birthday (and not use quotation marks around all these song titles — they get in the way). It reportedly started life as Good Morning to All or Good Morning to You, written by two Louisville sisters, Patty and Mildred Hill, in the 1890s.Eventually Birchtree Ltd., a small company with musical holdings, acquired the song. Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group, paid $25 million in 1988 to acquire Birchtree Ltd. and began colleting royalties while the candles were still being lit.
This is no small matter. Happy Birthday is the most frequently sung song in the English language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Its usage surpasses the works of Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles, says the Songwriters Hall of Fame. It has been sung in 143 movies — filmmakers of the 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams” paid $5,000 to use the song — translated into at least 18 languages and used in ads to sell everything from insurance to margarine. Warner/Chappell collects approximately $2 million per year in licensing fees for the song, some of it going to a foundation set up by the Hill sisters. But a film company, Good Morning To You Productions, which made a documentary film about the song, recently filed a lawsuit arguing the copyright on the song expired in 1921, and that the company should not have been forced to pay $1,500 for the rights to use the song. It now belongs in the public domain, the suit says.
Don’t worry, Warner/Chappell lawyers are not going to sue you for singing Happy Birthday at home, but at a restaurant? Anyone who performs the song publicly risks a $150,000 fine if they don’t agree to pay a fee to the music group, so restaurant chains, including Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse, have written their own birthday songs to avoid having to pay for live music.
Speaking of royalties, Irving Berlin wrote God Bless America in 1917 and never used it. Kate Smith popularized the tune in 1938, but Berlin made it strictly legal that all royalties would go to patriotic programs for impoverished youths. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were first. Thus far the song has generated $10 million in royalties and they still roll in, but Berlin never took a dime.
Now about the aforementioned public domain. In the U.S., no sound recording will enter the public domain until 2067, unless explicitly placed into the public domain by its composers. So you can sing the National Anthem, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, most of Sousa’s marches, America the Beautiful, Yankee Doodle, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dixie. But be careful about military songs. The Marines’ Hymn is not From the Halls of Montezuma. The official title is The Marines’ Hymn. Anchors Aweigh is actually the fight song of the U.S. Naval Academy, but is considered the official Navy song.
In 1948, the Army conducted a contest to find an official song. but no entry received much popular support. In 1952, another contest was held. Winner: The Army’s Always There. It was played by an Army band at President Ike Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1953. However, many thought that the tune was too similar to — get this — I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, so the Army decided to go back to a popular tune which was originally the Field Artillery Song, then the Caissons Go Rolling Along and now is The Army Goes Rolling Along. The official march of the U.S. Coast Guard is Semper Paratus (Latin for “Always Wet”). The U.S. Air Force song is called the U.S. Air Force Song, unfortunately dropping its original title: What Do You think of the Air Corps Now? Charles Lingbergh was asked his opinion of the tune. He responded politely but years later remarked in a diary, “I think it is mediocre at best. Neither the music nor the words appealed to me.” Neither the Coast Guard nor Air Force songs are in the public domain.
At the very end of the movie “Giant” there is small, not giant, print on the screen acknowledging the UT Students Association for the use of The Eyes of Texas. At that time the association held the copyright, then lost it to Wylbert Brown. It seems the UT Students Association copyrighted the song in 1936 and it expired in1964. In the late 1970s a man living in Oregon claimed ownership of The Eyes and was receiving royalties. Wylbert Brown, a former Fort Worth musician, had copyrighted the words in 1928, years before UT had. This brings up the question: how could the students copyright the song if it was already copyrighted?
Anyway, in 1986, the president of Southern Music Company in San Antonio, Arthur B. Gurwitz, wanted to honor his son, a UT grad, who had died. Gurwitz negotiated with Brown, then 91, who agreed to assign the copyright to UT-Austin, provided he would continue to draw some royalty until his death. He died in February 1987. On Nov. 14, 1987, in a special salute before a football game, UT-Austin honored Gurwitz returning the Eyes to their sockets till Gabriel blows his candles.
Ashby sings at email@example.com