The recently reported decision of US District Judge George H King in respect of copyright issues attaching to the song “Happy Birthday” is both news and no news at the same time.
In the decision, the judge decided that Warner/Chappell, a division of the Warner Music Group, when Warner bought a company which had rights to the original song, dating from 1893, extended only to the particular piano arrangements for the melody but not the lyrics.
The Warner group had apparently been charging commercial uses of the “Happy Birthday” song for use of the song and is reported was made significant amount of money over the years for doing so..
Whilst there are some differences between Australian and USA Copyright law and for the purposes of this short note I won’t go into the issue of how long copyright subsists in a work, the underlying principle remains the same, copyright attaches to the actual expression or representation of a work, artistic, musical or other.
It is trite law that Copyright law does not protect an idea but only an expression of the idea.
The case is a very good example of exactly that.
The judge effectively decided that that in respect of which the particular copyright existed was only a particular expression of the piano arrangement, not the words and not any variation on either.
It will be interesting to see whether there is an appeal.