Warner/Chappell has responded to the lawsuit in the US over the copyright in ‘Happy Birthday’.
As previously reported, a film company that made a documentary about the history of the song (and had to get a licence from the publisher to use it in the film) says it has unearthed evidence that the work was published earlier than the Warner publishing company claims, and is suing in a bid to have that point clarified in the courts, as well as for various damages.
The differences in dates is important because of changes in American copyright law in the early decades of the 20th Century. If the original publication dates were as the film firm claims the song would now be in the public domain in America, stopping Warner/Chappell, which acquired the rights in the song in 1990, from taking royalties whenever it is used. It’s thought the song generates over $2 million a year for the Warner publishing firm worldwide.
Warner/Chappell has now issued its own legal papers in response to the lawsuit, though the document doesn’t make any effort to discuss the ins and outs of when ‘Happy Birthday’ was first published, despite the plaintiff going into great detail on that point. Instead the response papers focus on various technicalities relating to the case, in a bid to have a number of the specific claims and allegations contained in the original litigation dismissed.
According to Billboard, experts reckon Warner’s first attack is focusing on having the potential damages that could stem from the litigation cut down to size, partly to limit the cost of any successful outcome, but more to test the resolve of the litigants, whose lawyers may be less keen to invest time into the case if the potential pay outs are more modest. Debates about whether or not ‘Happy Birthday’ is actually in the public domain in the US are, it seems, for another day.
It remains to be seen how the courts respond to Warner/Chappell’s various dismissal claims. As previously noted, the debate doesn’t apply to Europe, where a different copyright system makes publication date irrelevant, and where the copyright in the song is due to expire in 2016.