Copyright: The Gift that Keeps on Giving (for a long time)

Did you know that the song “Happy Birthday” was under copyright? If you read my colleague Walter Olson’s Overlawyered blog, you did. Back in June, he reported on a lawsuit to put an end to the claim of copyright:

Warner/Chappell Music continues to demand and collect royalties for public performance of the ditty, although its melody was first published more than 120 years ago and the familiar celebratory words have been sung to it for more than a century. A new lawsuit seeks a judicial ruling that the song is in the public domain and asks a return of wrongfully collected royalties.

I used this lawsuit as a hook for a piece in the National Interest that expands on an earlier blog post I wrote on the subject. The basic point is this: The Happy Birthday copyright claim may sound absurd, but given the current length of U.S. copyright terms, it’s actually not implausible for such an old song to be under copyright. For individual authors, life of the author plus 70 years is now the standard. That’s a long time!

And through trade negotiations, the United States is pushing these terms on other countries. In my view, this is bad for copyright and also bad for trade policy:

The appropriate focus of copyright policy right now should not be on using international trade agreements to extend copyright terms abroad. Rather, there needs to be a debate that focuses on how long copyright terms should be. Including provisions on copyright terms in trade agreements without first having that debate, and with ever-longer terms, is pushing intellectual property policy in the wrong direction and at the same time undermining the goal of free trade by bringing in unnecessary controversies.

Trade agreements are much broader than they used to be, and they cover a lot of different issues. Much of the mainstream coverage of trade agreements takes a simple “pro” or “con” view. But it’s more complicated than that; it’s worth picking them apart, seeing what all they do, and having a debate on each particular aspect. Copyright terms would be a great place to start.