Month: October 2015

The Happy Birthday Song, Batmobile, and Copyright Law

By Stephen B. Schott
Copyright law doesn’t change a lot but a pair of interesting cases came out recently involving some pop culture.
The Happy Birthday Song
dreamstime_s_17627706Are you one of those people who hears a story that sounds too interesting or curious to be true and just assumes it’s an urban legend? Do you hear a tall tale and immediately run it through Snopes? Me too. And the old “Happy Birthday” copyright tale definitely has the feel of an urban legend. It usually goes something like this:
“Did you know that every time someone plays Happy Birthday, they have to pay the guy who wrote it a dollar? And if they use it in a movie, they have to pay him a million dollars? It’s true. You can look it up.”
Ran that one through Snopes and you’ll get an article titled “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WE’LL SUE” and an indication that the song is copyright protected. But a recent case changed that.
Good Morning to You Productions, owned by Jennifer Nelson, was working on a documentary about the song’s history when Warner/Chappell Music attempted to charge her $1,500 for the song’s use. Nelson argued the song is not protected by copyright and filed a class action lawsuit.
Federal Judge George King traced the copyright in the song. It started in 1893 when a school teacher named Patty Hill wrote a song with her sister. The song was called “Good Morning to You” and you can imagine the tune that goes along with it. The sisters gave their copyright to the Summy Company that published it in a song book.
At some point in the early 1900s, people started using the Hill sisters' melody under the now-common “Happy Birthday” lyrics. No one knows who wrote these lyrics but in 1935, Summy Co. received a copyright for a version of the happy birthday song with the happy birthday lyrics.
Warner/Chappell acquired the rights to the copyright in 1998. Since then, the Happy Birthday copyright has generated $2 million annually in licensing fees. (Warner/Chappell donates a portion of these fees to a charity chosen by the Hill family.)
Considering Nelson's case, Judge King ruled that “The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to the piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics” and concluded that the copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics was thus invalid.
Warner/Chappell can appeal the case so you can't start using the song royalty-free in your blockbuster movie yet.
The Batmobile Lost Its Wheel
I would be happy with this for my car:
But if you want to really trick out your wheels, you should go to Mark Towle’s Gotham Garage. The Gotham Garage recently got a court-induced makeover, however, and can’t offer any more Batmobile retrofits.


(c) DC Comics 1941

The Batmobile’s history dates back to 1941, when it first appeared in a Batman comic book as a red car sporting a bat-shaped hood ornament. Since its introduction, it's been Batman’s primary ride when he’s on the ground, making appearances in comic books, TV shows, and movies.
DC Comics, which owns the IP around Batman, sued Gotham Towle for copyright infringement in 2011, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that the Batmobile is indeed a “character” protectable under copyright law.
The court held that the Batmobile “has varied in appearance over the years,” but it has certain identifying features such as (1) serving as Batman’s primary vehicle, (2) having features that give it a a bat-like appearance, (3) it is a vehicle that stands ready “to leap into action to assist Batman in his fight against Gotham’s most dangerous villains” (I can’t make these quotes up), and (4) hi-tech weapons and gadgets. The court concluded that these features render the Batmobile a “sufficiently distinctive” element of the overall Batman universe that is protectable under copyright law, and Towle’s Batmobile replicas infringed DC Comic’s copyrights in it.
In closing, the court quoted the caped crusader himself : "As Batman so sagely told Robin, 'In our well-ordered society, protection of private property is essential.’”
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Prop Head Reads: What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology

By Stephen B. Schott
41xeCImG44L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_What is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology
Addy Pross
My friend Manoj recently said, “In 5 billion years, an atom learned to talk.”
This observation begs the question: How did the atom learn to talk? How did non-life become life?
Pross sets out to answer this question and in so doing addresses many obstacles, the largest of which is Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. If you’re unfamiliar with the second law of thermodynamics, it states that "In any cyclic process, the entropy will either increase or remain the same." Some simplify it to state that ordered things tend towards chaotic over time and its inverse: Things that are chaotic will not tend towards order.
Take your kitchen. At some time, it is ordered: Every glass in the cupboard, every plate in its place. Over time, this ordered state (low entropy) will give way to more chaotic state (high entropy), where the plates have moved, cups shifted—and that’s even if your kids don’t move them around. Another way to think about the state of entropy in your kitchen is that there are only a few ways that it can be set up in an orderly way, while there are an infinite number of ways it can be in a chaotic state. Thus, there is a really small chance of a low entropy ordered state.
And yet living organisms are like the clean kitchen: Ordered and arrived at from an earth of 5 billion years ago that was a bundle of happy chaotic atoms. What would motivate, drive, or otherwise suddenly bring order to these atoms, swimming against the tide of the second law of thermodynamics, which is immutable in other contexts?
dreamstime_s_58460123Pross’s theory is that life is a natural consequence of the second law. Remember that the second law of thermodynamics permits low entropy ordered states, however improbable they may be. And what’s more, some of these low entropy ordered states may be highly persistent.
Pross discusses the example of certain chemical replicators. RNA, for example, is a nonliving complex chemical compound with an incredible property: It can create copies of itself. What’s more, in creating these copies, it also creates RNA variants of itself. Some of those RNA variants are better at replicating than the original, and thus may replicate faster and cause the original RNA copies to disappear over time, leaving the RNA variants as the stable form of RNA.
What does RNA, this nonliving chemical do? Replicate, vary, compete, and stabilize. It evolves.
Evolution into something highly replicable and stable may thus be a natural manifestation of chemistry. And from this it is Pross’s theory that one of the natural steps in chemistry is that nonliving chemicals can form replicable and stable chemicals that we call life.
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