Happy Birthday to You and Good Riddance to US Copyright Law

Today a federal district court judge ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” is not under copyright and belongs in the public domain. The ostensible copyright holder, a subsidiary of Warner Music, has been collecting over $2 million a year from filmmakers, artists, and others using the song. The story has been portrayed as a David vs. Goliath struggle between a major record label and four small artists, but while the case makes a nice, little human interest story for pop culture-watch journalists, it highlights a broader problem with our copyright system.

Copyright protection in the United States was written into the US Constitution which sought to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It’s worth noting that the purpose of the copyright system was to encourage innovation; rewarding the creator was a means to an end, not the end itself.

At first, copyright protection lasted for 14 years from the date it was granted with the option of an additional 14 year renewal so long as the creator was still alive and kicking. That comes out to a state-protected monopoly on that text or artwork lasting a maximum of 28 years. Congress believed that bolstering the potential for profit would encourage creators to experiment, while limiting the total length of copyright protection would prevent creators from resting on their laurels and allow others eventually to use their ideas once they’d reverted to the public domain.


But as the handy chart above demonstrates, since 1790 the length of copyright protection has ballooned, with the most recent change extending it to the full life of a creator plus fifty years. The motive isn’t surprising. There’s a great deal of money to be made by those who inherit copyrights. A bestselling book or song could make not only its creator very rich, but, assuming they live to a relatively ripe old age, the next two generations of their family. Corporations have been particularly strong proponents of extended copyright terms, especially the Walt Disney Corporation, which deploys fleets of lobbyists every time the copyright to Mickey Mouse comes close to expiration.


Copyright has turned into a kind of corporate welfare. While the standard for individual creators is life + seventy years, for works of “corporate authorship” it’s a flat 120 years. Given the high cost of enforcing copyright claims against infringement–the armies of lawyers and trial costs–the system disproportionately enriches large corporations while providing little benefit to smaller authors.

The major downside of a vastly extended copyright term is that it skews the balance between profit and innovation all out of whack. This isn’t to say that copyright should be done away with entirely, but it does suggest that copyright protections are so strong that they have begun to hinder rather than advance innovation. We are too far to the right on Alex Tabarrok’s curve (and copyright protections are longer/stronger than patent protections).


Take, for example, the perverse, unintended consequences of extended copyright provisions on book publishing. Books published prior to 1923 are all in the public domain today, but those from after 1923 were under extended copyrights. Even those books for which copyright may have lapsed still remain under a cloud of potential legal claims. This is why Google Books–that great boon to historians–is chock full of works from pre-1923, but few works from after that date are fully accessible.

As others have pointed out, the twentieth century is a “lost century” for American publishing. Few books from the mid-twentieth century are in print and widely available. While the elite of successful authors have become rich as a result, the works of smaller authors languish in obscurity. For the better part of a century, egregious copyright extensions have shrunk the American canon by discouraging niche literary interests.

Amazon pub domain

Think about it this way. The current system boosts sales and republications for a small number of bestselling books by discouraging the same for a much larger number of books published in smaller batches. It’s a transfer of profits and readers from the many to the few. I suspect that readers in the 19th century read a much more varied selection of books, but by the mid-20th century a larger mass audience consumed the same basic literary diet.

The historian in me can’t help wondering how that played into the creation of the post-WW2 era of consensus. Media historians have explored the role played by network control of the airwaves, but I’m not sure I’ve seen similar work done on how the shrinking horizons of book publication worked in a similar fashion by encouraging mass consumption of literature. How might that have affected mid-20th century American culture?

And on the flip side, if the implosion of network control led to the explosion of innovation that we associate with cable television today–with channels and shows dedicated to every possible taste, ideology, religion, and ethnicity–could the same be true if the copyright system were pruned back? I can’t help but suppose that without the copyright-induced barrier to niche publication, genre fiction might have looked less (ostensibly) white and male. If so, that would make the current imbroglio in the world of science fiction a legacy of unintended legal consequences rather than a referendum on who gets to identify as a “nerd.”

The FCC’s New “Just and Reasonable” Standard Could Be Anything But

2000px-FCC_New_Logo.svgOn March 12 the FCC issued its 400 page ruling on net neutrality. Vox’s Timothy Lee has an excellent overview of the ruling that I’d recommend reading before you continue with my post.

I have already expressed my concerns about the relationship between net neutrality and rent seeking behavior, so I won’t rehash them now. What alarms me about the new rules is a step the FCC took that went beyond net neutrality proper. The Commission annexed for itself the general power to determine whether broadband providers’ conduct is “just and reasonable.” Even companies complying with net neutrality rules could still be investigated for violating this new standard. It works via a system of public complaints. If you (or, more likely, a major internet content provider) believe your broadband provider is being unjust or unreasonable, you can complain to the FCC. It will then consider violations of the “just and reasonable” standard on a case-by-case basis. In fact, the FCC has given no actual definition of what constitutes “just and reasonable” conduct. The Commission will make it up as it goes.

This piques my interest because I’ve spent the past few years studying the damage wrought by an equally vague FCC rule regarding radio broadcasting. In the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission, the agency was charged with assigning and renewing radio station licenses so long as they used their licenses to serve the “public interest, convenience, or necessity.” This brief, vague line opened the door to years of lawsuits and some incredible abuses of government power for partisan political purpose.

Part of the problem with the standard was that it did not define the public interest, convenience, or necessity. In the 1940s, progressives argued that commercials were not in the public interest and the FCC moved to limit the amount of airtime that stations could devote to selling King Biscuit Flour and other sponsored products. The industry rallied in opposition to the proposed rules which were promptly dropped by the FCC. In the 1950s some on the commission worried that there were too many violent Westerns being broadcast–think about the children!–and they wanted stations to air more public service time covering the news and editorializing on “controversial issues of public importance.” In 1959 these principles were codified by the FCC as the Fairness Doctrine.

The FCC had set itself up as the arbiter of the “public interest.” Opponents of the proposal argued that people could just vote with their dial in a democracy of the airwaves, but the advocates believed that the public had a bad habit of voting for things (Westerns, boo!) that were not actually in their own interest. Instead, a non-elected board of lawyers, few with communications experience, would decide what the public truly needed. I don’t have time to go into the particulars of the Fairness Doctrine here–that’s what my dissertation is for–but it did not take long for the new rules to be abused for partisan purpose.

With the advent of mass television the networks had left the expansion of radio in the hands of financially-struggling, independent stations.They were willing to take programming from whoever could pay and conservative broadcasters like Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Clarence Manion could pay in cash. By the early 1960s about a dozen conservative broadcasters aired on a hundred stations or more nation-wide. But unlike the networks, which could hire lawyers and former FCC commissioners by the bushel, these small stations were vulnerable. When the FCC wanted to make an example out of a station, better to go with a rinky-dink operation. Henry Geller, a former FCC counsel, once described the FCC’s informal “three outhouse” rule of thumb. If a station had more than three outhouses, it was approaching a size that made it dangerous for the FCC to mess with.

Right-wing broadcasting graduated from minor irritant to major political nuisance by the early 1960s. In particular, conservative opposition to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty undermined the Kennedy Administration’s policy program and hurt the President’s reelection prospects for 1964. So in the fall of 1963 the Administration pushed the Internal Revenue Service to audit all the major conservative programs in hopes of scaring off their donors. Furthermore, President Kennedy encouraged the newly appointed Chairman of the FCC to keep the airwaves “fair” by more tightly enforcing the Fairness Doctrine. Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, which in this instance was the Kennedy Administration, the Democratic National Committee, the United Auto Workers, and the National Council of Churches. (Again, more details in the dissertation.)

Here’s where the vagueness of the Fairness Doctrine rules came into play. Stations were told to editorialize on current events, like the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but also to give both sides a fair hearing. If they aired an attack on the Test Ban Treaty, they were obligated to air a response from supporters of the Treaty. Ostensibly the rule applied to all sides and would ensure that both liberals and conservatives got to moot their opinions. The intended goal was a government-guaranteed marketplace of ideas on the airwaves.

Yet in practice the Fairness Doctrine was exclusively targeted at conservative broadcasters. Liberal interest groups–abetted by the DNC and the Administration–would lodge a complaint with the FCC whenever a station aired a conservative program attacking a liberal group or policy. The FCC would notify these stations of the complaints and mention that they would be taken into account at the station’s next license renewal hearing. Alternatively, the stations could agree to air response programs from these liberal interest groups. But here’s the kicker…they had to do so without charging for airtime. For example, when conservative program Life Line (funded by a Texas oil millionaire) paid radio stations to air an episode criticizing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the pro-treaty Citizens Committee for a Nuclear Test Ban wrote to the station demanding free response time. The FCC backed the request–resulting in the “Cullman Doctrine”–and many stations complied. This made airing conservative programs a financial liability and all but the most ideologically-motivated station owners began dropping Right-wing programming in droves. By 1968 most conservative programs aired on a quarter or a third of the total number of stations as they had in 1963.

We know about this partisan use of the FCC in the mid-1960s because a number of the major players began to regret their actions post-Watergate. They had used the FCC to bully stations into airing less anti-Administration programming, but it didn’t take more than a few years of Nixon to realize how stifling that could be once the shoe was on the other foot. They leaked information and documents to a former CBS news executive named Fred Friendly who wrote a book on the topic. One chapter of my dissertation expands on Friendly’s story using documents from labor archives, the DNC, and the JFK Presidential Library.

Let me end by listing some of the unintended consequences of the vague “public interest, convenience, or necessity” standard of the Radio Act of 1927 and its regulatory descendant the Fairness Doctrine:

1) Major companies were generally protected from any adverse consequences because of their deep pockets.
2) The burden of compliance fell disproportionately on new, struggling independent stations.
3) The rules were hijacked to serve partisan, political ends.
4) Stations dropped voices from the political periphery.

Of course, the FCC’s “just and reasonable” standard isn’t identical to the “public interest, convenience, or necessity” standard that gave rise to the Fairness Doctrine. Still, the Commission’s poor track record in enforcing this old vague standard should give us pause about a new vague standard. If the past history of the FCC is any guide, future Commissions will interpret the “just and reasonable” standard in ways that benefit the loudest, best-connected, and most well-financed lobbying groups. Regulatory capture is the bane of administrative law and the vaguer the rules, the more opportunity there is for incumbents to shape those rules in ways that benefit established interests.