July 3, 2012

Copyright and Wrong

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director

I heard on the radio last week that the song "Happy Birthday" was celebrating its own birthday.  You've probably heard the story of how it was written by a school teacher and her sister, only to be copyrighted 40 years later by a publishing company which had nothing to do with the composition. One of the sisters, Patti Smith Hill, lived to see that day, and I always wondered if she felt cheated, being the rightful owner but having never earned a penny herself from that unforgettable tune.

Anyway, moments later on the radio, I heard a commercial for a mattress store using the Beatles song "Help!" as their jingle. John Lennon must be rolling over in his grave, for I doubt that Yoko needed the money so badly that she would let her husband's classic be used to hawk Posturepedics. That sort of thing should be reserved for novelty songs, like the clever use of "Takin' Care of Business" for an office supply chain a while back. 

Artfully and respectfully handled, a well-known melody like Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" makes a perfectly good, evocative airline commercial. But in most cases, one can argue that using a famous composition for commercial purposes diminishes its reputation and future sales potential, especially ifas in the case of  Lennon/McCartney hitsit still has a shelf life.

This past week Kim Kardashian was said to be suing Old Navy because a girl in their commercial looks like her.  Not long ago, J.K. Rowling filed a suit (and won) against an author publishing a Harry Potter encyclopedia.  The author turned the idea into a website, which now has Rowling's endorsement.

There are often fine and fuzzy lines surrounding the copyright subjects of intellectual property, infringement, fair use, improper use, name and likeness, etc. But it makes for some pretty interesting conversation between writers, musicians and attorneys.  I only wish the Hill sisters had gotten some of the $5000 Disney paid to use "Happy Birthday" in one of their theme park attractions.

Mostly I'm hoping we never have to hear "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on a plumbing commercial.

But getting back to happy birthdays, Southern Writers Magazine is celebrating ours, and you get the gift!  During July we want you to enjoy every page of our anniversary issue, on us.  You can access the online edition immediately at:

Just be careful not to sing "Happy Birthday". 

1 comment:

  1. Great post...who knew?...not me. Happy Birth...oops I almost infringed. Thanks Gary