By now you may well have heard about last week’s ruling by a federal court that global music company Warner/Chappell’s claim to own the copyright for the song Happy Birthday to You (yes, the one everyone sings at birthdays) was invalid, as were the claims of all of the companies that have charged royalties for the use of the song during the last century. If you’re at all like me, you probably had no idea that anyone would even try (much less succeed at) charging others for singing such a ubiquitously-used song, especially not to the tune of $2 million per year! Most people, to the extent that they thought about it at all, probably assumed the song was already in the public domain (i.e., free for anyone to use however they like). But it wasn’t and it took pieces of evidence like a copy of the full-text version of the songbook held at the University of Pittsburgh Libraries to come to this ruling.
I’ll leave the explanation and analysis of the history behind this whole case to those better qualified to write about it, but I wanted to reference it as a reminder that it is important, and often helpful to more people than just yourself, to do your due diligence when dealing with issues of copyright. Taking the route of least resistance (e.g., automatically paying license fees, assuming that a work is under copyright, leaving an assignment as it is when changing it slightly could make a use a fair use, etc.) can cause you to pay fees or scrap resources unnecessarily. Furthermore, it allows larger companies to profit in inappropriate ways, as in the case of Happy Birthday.
An Illustrative Mistake
Here is a recent experience from my duties as the new “copyright guy” at the Bethel University Library. This week I was helping a staff member secure rights on behalf of a professor to use something in an online course. We went through the Copyright Clearance Center to get a quote for the use the professor wanted to make, and we found that pricing was only available by special request for this particular resource. We made the request, and the CCC came back with a prompt and very reasonable per-student quote. The problem is that we were also contacted separately by the rights holder in response to the CCC request, and they granted us permission to use the resource free of charge. In other words, despite the rights holder wanting to grant us permission for free, the CCC still saw fit to try to charge us (marginal as the fee admittedly was) on a per-student basis for securing rights to use the source. There was no notice from the CCC that the quote they were giving us consisted entirely of their service charge.
I don’t include this story primarily to malign the CCC for charging what they feel is a reasonable fee for the service they provide (though I do think their representation of this charge in their invoicing process is highly questionable). I include it because we probably ought to have contacted the rights holder in the first place to ask for permission. Given who the rights holder was and the presence of their work in the CCC’s database, I assumed they charged for all use of their work, and that even if we did ask directly, it would probably take much longer to hear back from the rights holder than we had. Based on these assumptions, I didn’t bother even recommending that the professor contact the rights holder. Given that in reality it took a single email exchange (that we didn’t even initiate!) and two days to get the rights we wanted, making those sorts of assumptions is a mistake I won’t make again soon.
If you have any copyright-related questions you can contact me at email@example.com or consult the Library Copyright Guide.