(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, July 13.)
It would probably come as a surprise to most people to discover that the song Happy Birthday was not, until recently, public property – not in the United States, at least.
As well as being reputedly the most recognised song in the English language, Happy Birthday is claimed to be one of the most profitable songs ever written, with estimated earnings of $US50 million. Not bad for a simple tune whose composers appear to have made no money from it.
According to Wikipedia, the tune was composed by American sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, but they never claimed copyright. The Happy Birthday lyrics first appeared in print in 1912 and copyright was eventually registered in 1935 by someone unconnected with the Hill sisters.
Since then the music publishing firm that owns the rights – initially an outfit called the Summy Company, but since 1988 Warner/Chappell Music – has clipped the ticket every time Happy Birthday was performed in public.
Not a bad little earner, by any measurement. The music publishers just sat back and watched the money come in.
The only effort expended would have been in enforcing their rights. You can bet they would have come down heavily on anyone who dared perform Happy Birthday in public without coughing up. Music publishers have a justified reputation for defending their interests ferociously.
But I’m pleased to report this racket has finally been brought to a halt. The makers of a TV documentary about the song sued Warner/Chappell for falsely claiming copyright and won the case.
I felt a slight tingle of pleasure when I read about the resolution of the Happy Birthday dispute, because I recently had my own little brush with the music publishing industry.
My book A Road Tour of American Song Titles: From Mendocino to Memphis is being launched this week. In it, I visit 24 American towns and cities that are named in the titles of hit songs (By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Is This the Way to Amarillo, Twenty Four Hours from Tulsa – you get the drift).
I write about the towns and about the songs they inspired – who wrote them, who sang them, how well they did in the charts, that sort of thing.
It was always my intention to quote some of the song lyrics. Ha! More fool me. I didn’t allow for the hard-nosed nature of the music copyright business and I certainly didn’t allow for the fees demanded by music publishers.
The companies I dealt with were courteous and obliging, but it soon became clear that I was navigating a minefield.
In some cases, ownership of the songs was disputed and I was warned I would risk dire consequences by quoting as much as a line of the lyrics. In other instances, ownership was shared between multiple companies claiming varying percentages of any royalties, and the process of obtaining permission seemed hellishly complicated.
Even where ownership of songs was straightforward and permission from the publishers would have been forthcoming, their exorbitant royalty demands ruled out quoting any of the lyrics. This applied even if I wanted to quote only a few words.
And the more books I sold, the more money I would have to pay. The music publishers would probably have made more from the book than I would.
Yes, I could have risked quoting the lyrics anyway, but song publishers have a history of mercilessly pursuing transgressors.
The irony is that anyone can go online and find the lyrics of these songs within seconds without paying a cent. But the moment you put them in a book you become an identifiable target. If you haven’t paid up, the publishers are likely to come after you.
That my book is a celebration of the songs, and might even revive interest in some that were in danger of being forgotten (like Saginaw, Michigan), didn’t seem to count in my favour. It’s all about the “ka-ching!” of the cash register.
In the end I agreed to pay for the right to quote one line from one song – a Creedence Clearwater Revival song about the city of Lodi, California. The chapter about Lodi hinged on that one line and would have made no sense without it.
For the rest, I suggested to my readers that they look the lyrics up online. In any case, many of the songs will be familiar to most pop fans of a certain age.
Even with Lodi, there was more to it than simply paying up. The music publishers insisted on vetting the relevant pages of my manuscript and demanded three free copies of the book which I imagine will never be opened, still less read.
The whole experience left me with a sour taste. It doesn't seem right that wonderful, timeless songs should end up in the hands of grasping corporates that contribute nothing to the creative process and measure the worth of everything in terms of the dollars generated. But there it is.