Un-Happy Birthday, but Happy Batman

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It’s been a busy week for copyrights in the entertainment world.

For years, copyright mavens have enjoyed startling people with the news that Happy Birthday to You is copyright-protected.  On Tuesday, a federal court in Los Angeles cast doubt on that copyright lore by holding that the copyright claimant, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., does not, in fact, own the copyright to the song.  The rights to the melody – which first appeared in the song, Good Morning to All – passed into the public domain long ago.  Warner/Chappell claimed, however, that Happy Birthday’s lyricists transferred the rights to the words to its predecessor in the 1930s.  The court found no evidence to support that claim and found Warner/Chappell has no rights in the song.  The court did not decide that no one owns the rights to the lyrics, but no other claimant has been identified.  Presumably the suit will celebrate its next birthday in the Court of Appeals.

Batman, however, had a better week.  On Wednesday, a federal Court of Appeals held that the Batmobile qualifies for copyright protection and that the defendant, who built full-sized Batmobile replicas, is liable for copyright infringement.  The decision is not as straightforward as it may seem.  Copyright law does not protect every element in a book, television series, or movie.  The court’s decision turned on its conclusion that the Batmobile is a character in the Batman works with particular traits, known in its own right for crime-fighting, “sleek and powerful characteristics” to help Batman fight villains.

The Happy Birthday decision, in Marya v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Docket No. 2:13-cv-04460 (Central District of California), may be accessed through PACER (for those with an account).  The Ninth Circuit’s Batmobile decision, in DC Comic v. Towle, Docket No 13-55484, is linked here.

As the law continues to evolve on these matters, please note that this article is current as of date and time of publication and may not reflect subsequent developments. The content and interpretation of the issues addressed herein is subject to change. Cole Schotz P.C. disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this publication to the fullest extent permitted by law. This is for general informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Do not act or refrain from acting upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining legal, financial and tax advice. For further information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your firm contact or to any of the attorneys listed in this publication.

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