The duration of copyright is a common question for musicians. How long does copyright last and does it expire at some point?
It was my birthday last week, which reminded me of the debacle surrounding the happy birthday song and copyright duration. You all know the song “Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday to you, Happy birthday dear John, Happy birthday to you”. Although it seems like this tune is just an old hymn of sorts, keep in mind that it is a song, and copyright laws clearly state that songs get copyrights. So at some point, someone had copyrights to the happy birthday song. This is where it gets interesting.
Warner Chappell, the record label, claim they owned the copyrights to the song, and they have been demanding royalties from the song every time it features on a broadcast, tv show, movie etc. Can you imagine how much they would make? Well, it is estimated they made on average $2 000 000 a year (i.e. over $5000 a day).
The song was first published in 1912. The Hill sisters (the authors who came up with the song) assigned the song to a company called “Summy Co”. Summy Co formally registered the copyrights in 1935 (In America, it was required by law to register copyrights – that is not the case now). In 1988 Warner purchased Summy Co and all of its assets (including its copyrights). Since then, Warner has been milking the use of that song. They thought the song would only enter into the public domain in 2030 which was more than enough time for them to make millions of dollars. They were wrong.
It was not disputed that the melody was already in the public domain as the melody had existed years before the Happy birthday song came about. Warner was asserting that they still own the lyrics. Unfortunately for them, there was no actual proof that the Hill sisters assigned the rights to the lyrics to Summy Co. They only assigned the melody, which had ‘expired’. So, Warner has been demanding payment since 1988 for use of the song when in fact they never had any right to do so. They agreed to pay $14 000 000 in royalties to all those that they had licensed the song. There is much more detail to this story, but you should Google it if it interests you. It is a great conversation topic.
The duration of copyright in South Africa
In South Africa, copyright duration is 50 years after the death of the author. If I write a song today, and I die in 2080, that means the song I wrote will still be in my estate until 2130. My children will be able to demand royalties for the use of the song for 50 years after my death. Only at the end of the year 2130 will my song fall into the public domain, free for all to use. If I sell my copyrights to a company, then the copyrights will still fall into the public domain 50 years after my death. It’s important to understand how long copyrights last. Think about that next time someone wants you to assign your copyrights to them.