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Catchy little tune commands center stage in IP litigation

Whether you love it or have already heard it enough to last for a lifetime, we think you'll agree with the depiction of Happy Birthday to You as "catchy."

It's short, it's to the point, and it is a decidedly universal offering, being sung routinely at birthday parties around the world.

And now it is embroiled in high-stakes litigation that centers squarely on a single question, namely this: Does the defendant in a federal class action lawsuit have a valid copyright interest in the song?

That is indeed an important question, because that defendant -- Warner/Chappell, a component of Warner Music Group -- contends that it does indeed have ownership of copyright registration to the tune and, thus, the right to collect licensing fees from users of the song.

Understandably, those fees amount to big bucks, and they were not legally challenged until a filmmaker making a documentary about Happy Birthday's history received an invoice from Warner demanding a $1,500 payment for making the song the subject matter of her film.

She sued, joining other claimants in the above-cited lawsuit filed two years ago.

Warner claims that its copyright to the song is firm and beyond legal challenge.

The plaintiffs contend otherwise, with one of their attorneys saying that a close historical review of Happy Birthday clearly concludes that the song was "given to the nation around the turn of the 20th century."

In other words, plaintiffs argue that the work has long been in the public domain and not eligible for copyright protection.

The case continues to work its way through a Los Angeles federal court.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "'Happy Birthday' belongs to all, filmmaker says," Matt Reynolds, July 29, 2015

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