Herzlichen Glückwunsch, Happy Birthday to you!

Happy Birthday to you ist in den USA nun gemeinfrei. In Deutschland dauert es noch eine Weile. Ein Lehrstück über Urheberrecht.

Es gibt kein und bekannteres simpleres Geburtstagslied als Happy Birthday – und es gibt keines, das einen größeren Rattenschwanz an Copyright-Verwicklungen hinter sich her gezogen hat. Am Dienstag nun  hat ein US-amerikanisches Gericht nach einem langen Prozess entschieden, dass die Rechte an Happy Birthday nicht Warner / Chapell Music  gehören, die sie 1988 erworben hatten. Das Lied ist damit – in den USA – gemeinfrei. Warner / Chapell hatte 2 Millionen US-$ pro Jahr an dem Lied verdient. Nun besitzen sie nur noch die Rechte an einem spezifischen Klavierarrangement des Liedes mit dem ursprünglichen Text “Good morning to all”.   Geklagt hatte die Filmemacherin Jennifer Nelson, die eine Dokumentation über die Herkunft des Liedes drehte, und von der Warner / Chapell 1500 US-$ Lizenzgebühren verlangte, oder, bei Nichtbezahlen, 150 000 US-$ Strafe.

In dem Prozess – und der Geschichte des Liedes – geht es hauptsächlich um eine historische Spurensuche. Wer hat wann welches Buch veröffentlicht? Wer hat wann die Rechte gekauft? Von wem? Wer ist wo, wenn überhaupt, als Copyright-Inhaber angegeben?

“The brief recap is that although the music and lyrics to “Good Morning” have a clear copyrightable moment in 1893, the same music coupled with the “Happy Birthday” words does not. The lawsuit notes the appearance in print in the early 1900s in various sources of alternate words, but without being authorized specifically by the Hills—who ostensibly retained copyright to “Good Morning,” not the Song Stories publisher—that doesn’t necessarily diminish their claim.

In 1934, Jessica Hill sued over the performance of “Happy Birthday” as part of a 1933 Irving Berlin stage musical, but without referencing the lyrics—only earlier copyrights to “Good Morning.” (Jessica inherited part of the rights from Mildred, who died in 1916.) In 1934 and 1935, Jessica sold rights to certain piano arrangements of “Good Morning” to the publisher of Song Stories, the Clayton F. Summy Company. Summy in turn filed a series of “republished musical composition” copyright registrations for “Happy Birthday,” although only the last of which included the lyrics, and the lyrics weren’t cited as part of the revisions that would justify a new registration.

The Warner/Chappell defense of the copyright that remains is that somehow, the 1893 music combined with lyrics that were already in wide use and published extensively, once put together in 1935 represent a new work. That idea may be indefensible enough, but there are many other flaws in how the song traveled from 1893 to 1935. (The original 1893 work and a revised 1896 version should have remained under copyright until 1921 and 1924; the lawsuit says a proper renewal wasn’t filed. Even if it were, the last possible date of protection would have been 1924 plus 28 years: 1952.)

Warner/Chappell, part of Warner Music Group, has owned the rights (if any exist) since acquiring the previous owner in 1985. It has reaped on the order of $2 million per year since, and if it were to maintain that 1935 registration date, its ownership wouldn’t expire until 2030—137 years after the first publication of the song’s melody”,

schreibt Glenn Fleishman in einem informativen Artikel.

Wer die urprüngliche Klage noch einmal lesen will, kann das hier tun.

“If and to the extent that defendant Warner/Chappell relies upon the 1893, 1896, 1899, or 1907 copyrights for the melody of Good Morning to All, those copyrights expired or were forfeited as alleged herein.

As alleged above, the 1893 and 1896 copyrights to the original and revised versions of Song Stories for the Kindergarten, which contained the song Good Morning to All were not renewed by Summy and accordingly expired in 1921 and 1924, respectively.

As alleged above, the 1899 copyright to Song Stories for the Sunday School, which contained Good Morning to All, and the 1907 copyright to Good Morning to All were not renewed by Summy Co. before its expiration in 1920 and accordingly expired in 1927 and 1935, respectively.

The 1893, 1896, 1899, and 1907 copyrights to Good Morning to All were forfeited by the republication of Good Morning to All in 1921 without proper notice of its original 1893 copyright.

The copyright to Good Morning to All expired in 1921 because the 1893 copyright to Song Stories for the Kindergarten was not properly renewed.

The piano arrangements for Happy Birthday to You published by Summy Co. 111 in 1935 (Reg. Nos. E51988 and E51990) were not eligible for federal copyright protection because those works did not contain original works of authorship, except to the extent of the piano arrangements themselves.

The 1934 and 1935 copyrights pertained only to the piano arrangements, not to the melody or lyrics of the song Happy Birthday to You.

The registration certificates for The Elementary Worker and His Work in 1912, Harvest in 1924, and Children’s Praise and Worship in 1928, which did not attribute authorship of the lyrics to Happy Birthday to You to anyone, are prima facie evidence that the lyrics were not authored by the Hill Sisters.”

In Deutschland ist das Lied mit dem Urteil allerding nicht gemeinfrei. In den USA gilt, dass Werke, die vor einer umfassenden Reform des Urheberrechtes 1922 entstanden bzw. nicht verlängert worden sind, prinzipiell gemeinfrei sind, in Deutschland greift nach wie vor die Regelschutzfrist, nach der das Urheberrecht 70 Jahre nach dem Tod der Autorinnen – der HillSchwestern – abläuft. Das wäre am 31. Dezember 2016 der Fall.

Damit ist Happy Birthday to you – genau wie übrigens die Versuche des Conan Doyle Estates mit Zähnen und Klauen die Recht an Sherlock Holmes zu verteidigen – ein gutes Beispiel für eine dringend benötigte Entschlackung des Urherberrechts.

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