copyright question

Dear Doc:

I heard that there is almost never a final step in the onward march of copyright law. What, exactly, does that mean?

Dazed and Confuzed

Dear D&C:

It means that, as the late, great Yogi Berra (may he forever whisper in the Almighty’s ear) said, “It ain’t over ’till it’s over!”  For instance, you may remember that the Doc wrote about the monkey who took a “selfie” and how the Copyright Office then made a rule that only humans could be authors and have copyrights. Well, in addition to offending self-respecting monkeys everywhere, as well as painting elephants and poetic pigeons, this ruling seems to have offended the good humans at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Filing as “Next Friends”, PETA has set in motion a federal lawsuit by Naruto (that’s what the monkey says his name is) against the fellow who lost, and later recovered the camera, and who then found the monkey selfies and sold them. PETA says that Naruto, even though a non-human, should have property rights and that PETA should be allowed to “administer and protect” those rights so that any profits may be used “solely for the benefit of Naruto, his family, and his community, including the preservation of their habitat…”.

Now the “Doc” is no monkey expert, but having read the Copyright Statute (17 USC §101 et seq.) he can find no definition of “author” that says “only humans”. In the onward march of equal rights for all, provided that the courts will allow standing and exercise jurisdiction (not a small provided), we may yet see a parade of copyright-holding creatures. The Doc looks forward to defending the rights of a veritable circus parade of orating orangutans, poetic pigeons, yodeling yaks, cinematic simians, painting pandas, sculpting salamanders, and lyrical llamas.

On another update, a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled last week that the song “Happy Birthday to You” is not validly protected by copyright. The story is long (it took the judge 43 pages to say that) but it seems that the music copyright expired long ago, and the words were published without a valid copyright notice, which was fatal under the 1909 Copyright Act (but not anymore since the law was changed in 1976.) What does this mean? First, the Doc thinks that Warner, the copyright owner, may appeal since it rakes in $2 million a year from the song. The law may change, yet again. Second, until they do, you may expect a remarkable reduction in the number of cheesy happy birthday song substitutes sung by restaurant wait-staff all over the world!

Have another question about intellectual property rights? Want an answer that will certainly be correct today, but maybe not so much once the courts and Congress change the law next week? Ask the attorneys at LW&H – they will give you the straight scoop.
Until next month…

The Doc

— Lawrence A. Husick, Esq.