Yours, Mine, Ours

This is mildly interesting:

My two initial reactions: in the case of invention, it is not unlikely that two artists could stumble upon a similar melody at relatively the same time, or that one could be inspired by the other. And though I would generally side with the author of the original tune, I must admit that the Coldplay song started playing on a loop in my head the moment I saw the iPod commercial in which it is featured. Whereas I can't remember the Creaky Boards tune for the life of me. So, the melodies are different enough that one employs poppier turns of phrase and more distinctive fluctuations between the notes. I'm not a huge fan of Coldplay in the first place but will admit to liking a handful of songs. Yet it was one of their most lugubrious, cloying and my least favorite song of theirs, "Fix You," that I sang every morning when I awoke for a week straight (which, frankly, seems like a more valid reason to sue Coldplay). Anyhow, decide for yourself.

This is even more interesting:

On the topic of copyright issues, the song 'Happy Birthday' has both a fascinating origin and subsequent life story. The song began as "Good Morning to All" as composed by schoolteacher Mildred J. Hill and her sister Patty in the late 19th Century. However, the melody was not entirely written by them in the first place but rather borrowed from a variety of popular songs at the time, a practice that was not uncommon within the oral or folk traditions. It was children who ultimately played with and changed the lyrics to "Happy Birthday to you," as they had begun singing the song at parties. By the time the Hill sisters registered a copyright of the song in 1935, they claimed both the melody and the birthday lyrics as their own. In the subsequent years many artists and companies were slapped with copyright infringement lawsuits or forced to pay high rates for the use of the song. From Western Union, whose singing telegrams often included "Happy Birthday" (incidentally, it was the singing telegram that most likely spread the popularity of the tune across the country) to Igor Stravinsky, who was reprimanded after including several bars of the song in one of his symphonies.

But where the story really gets good is when Time Warner purchased the copyright of "Happy Birthday" in 1988. In the mid 1990s, their publishing company, who collects the royalties, sent a letter to the Girl Scouts and other summer camps informing them that they would now need to purchase the rights to the song in order to perform it. The penalty for a single, unauthorized performance of the song would range from $5,000 or six days in jail to $100,000 and a year in jail. In the end, after several camps ceased singing the song and many others issued formal complaints, the publishing company rescinded its request saying that it would no longer charge non-profit organizations for use of the song.

This all means that sometime during our childhoods, we likely broke the law whilst singing what we thought to be an authorless tune.
From Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression:

Copyright law defines a "public performance" as something that occurs "at a place open to the public, or at any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of family and its social acquaintances is gathered." For instance, around a campfire.

Fortunately, these days, for those of us who merely want a melodious and traditional way of wishing one another well as we turn the page on another year, the song" Happy Birthday" is no longer under copyright protection. Over half a century of ridiculousness has now come to and end. You can read all about that here.

Or check out Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity by Kembrew McLeod.

And speaking of birthdays.

Comments

 

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I completely side with the Creaky Boards guy on this one. Not to be a total stickler, but we're talking about one of the biggest bands in the world freely "borrowing" most of the song structure from a little-known band and making a big hit out of it. Admittedly, I do not know all of the facts, such as whether or not the originators were credited for this, but it certainly seems to indicate a rather shallow creative pool on Coldplay's part (a band, mind you, that Radiohead has accused for years of stealing their sound, watering it down, and making it "pop.")

I must also wholly disagree with Carrie's sentiment here; it doesn't seem fair to credit Coldplay with making the song more memorable. Coldplay can afford world-class production, through which a melody like the one they seem to have taken can be improved upon and made more "catchy." Sure, it sounds nicer, but that was certainly intentional and due to their producers' music-savvy.

I feel bad for the Creaky Boards in this case, too, simply because Coldplay's actions here seem more than a little predatory. If, as a more small-time act, your music is subject to being taken from you, it seems indicate a vicious circle where small acts stay small and big acts stay big.

There will always be creative borrowing and the impact of music on other musicians will and should freely take place (the documentary DIG! features a great commentary on the creative interaction of a bigger and more popular Dandy Warhols vis a vis the smaller and more troubled Brian Jonestown Massacre), but this just seems so much more intentional and profit-motivated, not to mention weak. Agree/disagree?

Sent by Ryan | 2:37 PM | 6-18-2008

Author Jonathan Lethem wrote an interesting and fairly comprehensive article on the issue of plagiarism, authorship and the "anxiety of influence" (published in Harper's last year).

While in my own work I try to be faithful to an accurate citation method, the article does make me start to see citation as something linked pretty strongly to commerce (which is not something I want to be focused on when writing). I really don't know what to think.

For anyone interested, here's the link:
http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387

Sent by Elizabeth | 3:11 PM | 6-18-2008

I really don't hear much of a similarity between the two songs. It's no "My Sweet Lord"/"He's So Fine." And man, that Creaky Boards guy just sounds insufferable and whiny.

I wonder if the Happy Birthday rule applies if you sing in another language. In French class in high school, we'd belt out a rousing rendition of Bonne Anniversaire a Toi.

Sent by Laura E. | 3:27 PM | 6-18-2008

Futurama fell victim to "Happy Birthday." In the episode where Bender flushes Nibbler down the toilet, Nibbler has a birthday. The employees at Planet Express sing their Happy Birthday song, but it's not "Happy Birthday."

What day is today?
It's Nibbler's birthday.
What a day for a birthday.
Let's all have some cake.

And of course at the end of the song Fry says, "And you smell like one, too!" The writers for Futurama had to use a different song because "Happy Birthday" was copyrighted. I searched for a video clip at You Tube. You'd think that You Tube would have this freakin' thing, but no.

And this is why whenever you go to a restaurant and the waiters and waitresses come out to wish someone happy birthday they sing that irritating monstrosity with the clapping of hands and whatnot. Thank you Time Warner for ruining my life.

Sent by Nick L. | 3:28 PM | 6-18-2008

Your copyright-geekiness isn't so well-developed, alas. In a new, compelling paper, "Copyright and the World's Most Popular Song", GWU Law School Prof. Robert Bruaneis shows that "Happy Birthday to You" is no longer under copyright protection due to a variety of complicated minutiae. See: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1111624

So, sing, perform, whatev you want, girl.

The post has been amended to reflect the new law. Thanks for providing an update. -CB

Sent by joe | 4:53 PM | 6-18-2008

Umm, what about singing Happy Birthday by Altered Images?

As for the Futurama scene, you can see that on the DVD. Perhaps that is more of an issue of Twentieth Century Fox not wanting their property posted.

Sent by Janine | 7:04 PM | 6-18-2008

If I were Mr. Creaky Boards Leadsinger I'd be worrying about a lawsuit from the 70s pornstar who originated that cheesy 'stache.

Enough, indyrockers! Enough with the whimsical facial hair.

Sent by Margo | 7:52 PM | 6-18-2008

You can read an entertaining treatise on IP and public domain (in comic book style!) here:
http://www.law.duke.edu/cspd/comics/zoomcomic.html

Sent by mikey | 8:05 PM | 6-18-2008

Another example of melodic wizardry that follows the same II-V-I chord progression with hipster vocal noodling:

Some Things Must Go This Way - Paloalto

Sent by Bill Nordwall | 8:53 PM | 6-18-2008

Coldplay took the entire lead melody of a Kraftwerk song, repackaged it as a guitar-driven ballad, and a legion of young fans is never the wiser. I personally think we should not trust them.

Sent by Justin Ward | 8:54 PM | 6-18-2008

Many, many years ago...1997 maybe...my old band opened for Modest Mouse in Green Bay with an audience of about a dozen people. Maybe within a year or so after I came across a live recording of Dark Center Of The Universe in it's beginning stages and it had the exact same melody as one of our songs we played at that show. Coincidence? Maybe. I really don't care. I can see how it's possible a song melody could get stuck in your head and be reborn later in what an artist feels is an original song. I wish I had a digital recording of that song as well as the computer smarts to be able to share it but i've only got it on cassette (remember when cassettes were cool?).

Sent by Al | 11:26 PM | 6-18-2008

I remember reading somewhere that Jethro Tull toured with the Eagles in the early 1970s, and every night they would play a jam song called "We Used to Know" with a very distinctive chord progression. Years later, the Eagles came out with "Hotel California" with a very similar chord progression. Guess which was the bigger hit?

I don't recall Ian Anderson being quite as petulant as the Creaky Boards guy--just saying with a laugh that he was still waiting for the royalties.

http://local.google.com/answers/threadview?id=289702

Sent by Josh | 2:23 AM | 6-19-2008

I like the Creaky Boards song much better.

My family and I have many reunions, and we sing lots of famous songs around the campfire. Are we going to get arrested and sued by the police? It's not like we're singing for profit. We're just doing it to have fun.

Sent by Jan | 11:14 AM | 6-19-2008

Coldplay isn't just ripping off one band. Those outfits and the drum are very Arcade Fire. That said what are you gonna do, ban him from your shows?

Sent by jen | 2:17 PM | 6-19-2008

Coldplay has said themselves that they 'borrow' from other songs. Take 'Speed of Sound' off of their 2005 erlease X&Y for example - Chris Martin said that this track was originally an attempt to re-create Kate Bushs' "Running Up That Hill". They didn't re-create it, they ripped it off. Does it make it better because he is outright admitting that they have done this?

I think if we take a closer look at thier entire catalog we will find that they have 'borrowed' from somewhere on every track.

The first single 'Violet Hill' off of their latest album, again sounds strangely familiar to me. Kind of like the melody from 'Tusk' by Fleetwood Mac.

As the guy above said, they also took the entire lead melody of a Kraftwerk song, repackaged it as a guitar-driven ballad.

Sent by CBlair | 4:31 PM | 6-19-2008

Maybe it's the mustache.
I agree with Creaky Boards guy that the songs are too similar. I wonder if his story that Coldplay guy was at his show has any truth to it. If so, I smell lawsuit.
Still, the mustache keeps me from warming up to this complaint.

Sent by Kikuchiyo | 5:34 PM | 6-19-2008

Those songs are only mildly similar. They're well within the melodic margin of error. I'm not a Coldplay fan but c'mon.

Sent by John McAteer | 6:30 PM | 6-19-2008

I recently wrote a paper about file sharing for an English class. I've been following the whole file sharing issue ever since Napster, but I was afraid I would get written up for plagiarism because I have opinions that have been based on all the articles, books and blog posts I've read over the years. How do I acknowledge all the thoughts and opinions that helped me form my own opinions years after the fact? My point is that nothing is truly "original". Every thought, word and idea we have is based on something we've experienced before. In fact I probably stole this comment from someone else. Sorry. Music is based in numbers. If two people are told to come up with a combination of numbers that equal 25, eventually two people will come up with the same combination. Did the Creaky Boards plant a seed that Coldplay made into a hit? Possibly. Does Coldplay rip off other artists. Most definitely. Does anyone care? Well, the Creaky Boards do, but I'll bet if we look and listen hard enough we can find a Dandy Warhols song that sounds similar to the Creaky Boards. And I'll bet that song led to the Creaky Boards writing their song. Carrie is right, the Coldplay version is better. By better I mean that it's brighter, more poppy and generally fits better in an iTunes commercial. That's why Coldplay are who they are and why Creaky Boards are who they are. BTW, I got an A on the paper.

Sent by Melvillain | 6:54 PM | 6-19-2008

I'm one of those people who hears a riff in every song that sounds like another song

I see a look or an expression on somebody's face that reminds me of somebody else

they say that every song in existence has already been written

there are only so many notes, so many beats

and I can't believe that an artist like chris martin (I am a fan - but not a huge fan) really needs to take from the outside, he seems to have all that he needs within himself

so going against my grain of supporting the underdog - I just think that it falls under the category of random similar musicality (I think I may have made that up)

I just can't buy it and I don't want to buy into it

Sent by sharon | 7:58 PM | 6-20-2008

what about ripping off your own song, nickelback style?

have you heard this:
http://www.thewebshite.net/nickelback.htm

its crazy!

Sent by brittany | 8:06 PM | 6-20-2008

aaron sorkin tackles "happy birthday" back in the Sports Night days (and explained by the lovely Lisa Simpson):
http://youtube.com/watch?v=OP9U_mslaWU

Sent by jonashpdx | 11:30 AM | 6-23-2008

both songs are terrible. boo hoo.

Sent by anne | 1:37 PM | 6-24-2008

thought I'd tack this on to this post, but not really bothered if you add it on or not, it's really just fyi.

One of my favourite photographers - Amy Stein - has just posted that Sleater-Kinney, and specifically "light rail coyote" and "the woods" were an unconscious influence on her "Domesticated" series:

http://amysteinphoto.blogspot.com/

http://www.amysteinphoto.com/domesticated.html

Sent by Claire | 2:04 AM | 7-9-2008

okay, I'd never heard either song before, and I kind of like both of them in that inoffensive, radio-friendly kinda way - but the problem is that now I have the mashup version of both stuck in my head. rather than one or the other... it's kinda both/ neither. not great.

carrie, your post sort of makes me want to finally check out coldplay's albums, which is something probably you nor I could've anticipated. great blog though!

Sent by jessamyn | 2:53 PM | 7-16-2008

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