Copyright and the Public Domain on Trial

A recent article in the New York Law Journal reports on a class action complaint, Good Morning To You Productions Corp. v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., filed in the Southern District of New York where ownership of the well-known song “Happy Birthday to You” is under dispute. The plaintiff company, which is producing a documentary about the song that dates back to before 1893, is seeking a declaration that the tune is in the public domain and not subject to copyright protection. During production, the plaintiff company learned that the defendant claimed exclusive copyright ownership of the song. The defendant charged a license fee of $1,500 to use the song which the plaintiff paid. The defendant is alleged to have threatened legal action against the plaintiff seeking penalties of $150,000 under the Copyright Act if it used the song without permission.

This prompted the lawsuit which argues that the defendant “either has silenced those wishing to record or perform ‘Happy Birthday to You’ or has extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge its ownership claims.” In addition to seeking a declaration that the song is in the public domain, the complaint asks for the return of the $1,500 licennse fee that it paid plus millions of dollars collected over the years for what it calls “the world’s most popular song.”

The past year has seen other complaints looking to declare famous works as being in the public domain.  See Klinger v. Conan Doyle Estate, Ltd about the stories of Sherlock Holmes filed in the Northern District of Illinois and Cabell v. Zorro Productions, Inc. about the stories of Zorro filed in the Western District of Washington. For more on the subject of public domain and copyright law, see the Brooklyn Law School Library copy of The Public Domain: How to Find & Use Copyright-Free Writings, Music, Art & More by Stephen Fishman. The guide explains the law and identifies problems and gray areas. It also covers trademark and patent law as they might conflict with copyright.