Since litigation in 2015 successfully challenged the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday To You,” bringing the song into the public domain, a number of filmmakers and artists have fought to do the same to two other iconic songs, “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land.” In the Law360 article “This Song Was Made for You and Me,” Partner Michael Donaldson weighed in on the impact of the “Happy Birthday” case, as well as potential problems with bringing other songs into the public domain.
In “Happy Birthday,” the plaintiffs used the Declaratory Judgment Act to secure a ruling that Warner/Chappell Music Inc. does not own a valid copyright to the song, leading to a $14 million class settlement that will be paid to thousands of creators who had to pay licensing fees for the song. However, this may not be applicable to all songs that people believe should be in the public domain. “The fact that something is so successful that it’s worked its way into the hearts and minds of many people doesn’t disenfranchise the copyright owner from the legitimate rights he or she has,” Michael said.
The article concludes by noting that the “Happy Birthday,” “We Shall Overcome” and “This Land Is Your Land” lawsuits have created awareness about public domain that did not exist before. “Since the internet became another member of every American family, there has been an attitude among some people that if it’s on the internet, it’s in the public domain,” Michael said. “What these three cases do is bring to the public’s awareness that public domain is not simply widely available or widely popular.”