Category Archives: in the news

Could copyright crash your birthday party?

Did you know that copyright in the song birthday cake“Happy Birthday to You” belongs to the Warner/Chappell publishing house? Well that’s what they claim. They say they bought it in 1988 for a cost of $25 million. Don’t feel too sorry for them though because it’s thought that since then those rights have guaranteed them an annual windfall of $2m in re-use fees.

This has all come to light lately because a US film-maker is taking Warner/Chappell to court to challenge their claim and return the song to the public domain.

It’ll be interesting to see how the court case pans out, but let’s assume for a while that Warner/Chappell *do* own the copyright in the song as they claim. What would the implications be? We’ve all sung this song at birthday parties. Might we have been breaking the law all this time??

First let’s consider the legal situation. Although the song originated in the US and the publishers are based there, we are in the UK so UK law would apply.

Might the copyright have expired? There may be two separate types of copyright in a song: lyrics and music. In the UK, copyright in “literary works” (which would apply to the lyrics) and “musical works” (er, the music) expires seventy years from the end of the calendar year in which the author or composer died. If the music first appeared in the late 1800s and the lyrics in 1911 then it’s possible that copyright *has* expired. We could do a bit more digging here to try and check this…

There are a number of “acts” which are “restricted” under UK copyright law. These are actions which under certain circumstances might be illegal. One is copying the work, another is “issuing copies of the work to the public”, yet another is “performing” the work.  “Performing” might be an optimistic description if your experience of birthday parties is anything like mine but maybe we should check whether or not our singing is in tune with copyright legislation.

So what type of “performance” might be a problem? Well the law says that there could be copyright issues with performing “in public”. Typically, its definition of what might constitute a “public” performance is very brief but it does include “any mode of visual or acoustic presentation, including…a sound recording, film or broadcast”. That might explain why it’s film makers who have particularly fallen foul of Warner/Chappell.

But does that mean we are breaking the law if someone has filmed us singing “Happy Birthday to You” at a party? The idea might seem preposterous to you but if this is a song still in copyright whose rights belong to a major U.S. publishing house (and of course the jury will literally soon be out on this), then there might be an issue here.

The trouble is that there’s nothing in the wording of the law which categorically says it’s OK to sing someone else’s song and make a film of yourselves doing so. And that’s why, when anyone asks me a copyright question, I generally answer something along the lines of “well, no actually, that’s not strictly allowed by copyright law”. Welcome to my world.

As ever in these cases, we’d need to ask what are the risks? If I’m just making a film to share with my family? And maybe adding it to Facebook or YouTube? These are both freely available websites (alarm bells?) but haven’t hundreds (thousands?) of people already put up films of themselves or others singing other people’s songs and not got into trouble for it? Surely it would be OK?

Well yes, probably. This is often the way my copyright enquiries end up. I can tell you that there’s unlikely to be anything in the law which allows this, but what risk are you running? I’m afraid that’s for you to decide.

I’ve just discovered that today is Boris Johnson’s birthday! Altogether now…

(Image: Birthday Cake, Creative Commons via Will Clayton)


Art surgery


The irony that Banksy’s anti-establishment art commands huge prices isn’t lost on him.

One of the best places to look for copyright-free images is the Creative Commons site. (It’s a copyright mantra I have.) Their licences often have generous terms and it’s usually possible to legally use Creative Commons images in blog posts and elsewhere on the internet.

But do Flickr users who upload images to their photostream then attach a Creative Commons licence to them actually own copyright in those images in the first place?

Here are the results of a search I did on the Creative Commons site for images with the keywords “Star Wars poster”. Notice how many of them include photos and logos from the films themselves. It’s 99.9999% certain that these are the intellectual property of Lucasfilm Ltd and not of the Flickr users who have uploaded them and presumptuously accorded them Creative Commons status.

The Pinterest site is one which allows its users to share images, videos and other resources. (It’s probably on a par with YouTube with its cavalier approach to copyright, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Here’s a Pinterest page of photos of graffiti art, all of it attributed to its most well known proponent. Banksy, for it is he, is famous for his contempt for copyright so he’s unlikely to be outraged that his work has been pinned to the site without his permission and so probably won’t be following Pinterest’s copyright complaints procedure any time soon.

A further issue though: how can we be sure that these works are his? They look as though they are but whose word do we have for this? We can’t be sure, and the covert nature of the Banksy operation doesn’t make it any easier. Even the man himself admits that in the past works which others have attributed to him are actually fakes and that some of these have even gone on to be sold for huge sums.

In a recent story we read that a Banksy mural has been removed from its original location in North London and is about to be auctioned in Miami. There are a number of interesting copyright issues here. It’s reasonable to suppose that Bansky would be within his rights to claim copyright  in his work just like any other artist. But is it OK for him to control the commercial exploitation of that art? Maybe the owner of the property on which Banksy left it would like to press criminal charges? Maybe he or she also now has some claims to the art? The Lexicology website has an interesting article which goes into more detail about these issues.

(Image: Creative Commons Licence via dullhunk? Or Banksy’s own?)

Helicopter crash photos – who owns them?

Mobile phone “reporters” in Egypt

The tragic helicopter crash in South London last week was yet another example of the important part which social media now plays in news reporting. The point at which breaking stories hit the headlines is no longer determined by the arrival of newspaper or broadcast journalists on the scene. Within minutes of an event taking place Twitter is abuzz with eye witness reports, photos and video footage posted by passers-by. Not surprisingly it is these on-the-spot accounts which are of most value to news organisations and they often seize on this kind of material to illustrate their own reports.

There are issues here though. Copyright in photographic material belongs to the photographer, even if it’s posted on Twitter. Newspapers are wrong to think they have the right to post it on their own websites without taking this into account.

An interesting article in the Guardian has more about some of the issues which have arisen from last Wednesday’s events.

(Photo: Creative Commons Licence via Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Indian shop sued over students’ photocopies

An Indian university has set up its own photocopying shop to supply its students with cheap copies of textbooks. Publishers don’t like it and are taking them to court.

Whose side are you on?

Patisserie update!

Insert your own “copyright / “piece of cake” caption here

I’ve come across some interesting copyright-related Twitter accounts lately: @copyrightgirl, @copyrightlaws* and the CLA’s own “ProtectingCreativity‏” account (@CLA_UK) are are all good for keeping up with news items, legal developments and some of the wider issues with getting the copyright message across.

In an attempt to persuade you that there’s more to copyright than turgid legalese, here are some of the more entertaining stories I’ve seen on Twitter lately. As always I’d be interested to know if any of these strike a chord with you.

In time honoured Pick of the Pops-style fashion, this month’s Top 5 copyright stories come to you in reverse order:

5: Users of social photo-sharing website Pinterest may be walking into a copyright minefield.

4: Some interesting–and rather late (sorry ’bout that)–Halloween-related copyright facts. Zombies, vampires and such…

3: News of an optimistic law suit fired Sony’s way about the (mis)quoting of a William Faulkner line in Woody Allen’s film “Midnight in Paris”.

2: A story here to back up my “Beware Google Images!” mantra. If you steal images from the internet you can get yourself into serious trouble on prime time TV news (with apologies for third party profanity).

And this month’s Number One copyright story is…

…about cakes. Bad cakes to be precise. It features a cynical attempt by the bakery department of a major supermarket chain to stop people adding photos of its badly-designed cakes and invoking copyright law to justify doing so. Are cakes covered by copyright? A heated debate ensues!

(Image: Creative Commons Licence courtesy of alalsacienne.)

Brand on the run

NOT the Olympic logo

If you haven’t been living in some kind of hermetically-sealed monastic retreat for the last twelve months you will have you noticed that there’s something going on in East London. And you’ll probably have read some of the stories doing the media rounds on the subject of branding. Sadly, Pierre de Coubertin is no longer around to tell us what he thinks of the idea of the “Olympic brand” and how worked up he thinks we should get about its misuse but more than a century later it’s likely that it’s something, along with the vested interests of the “commercial partners” of the Games, which is here to stay.

Some of the more outrageous urban myths affecting spectators–the alleged banning of Pepsi T-shirts and Nike trainers, for example–have since been refuted by the Olympic organising bods but there are still some interesting cases.

There are similarities with our beloved world of academic copyright I suppose in that it’s where there could be commercial consequences that rights owners are particularly apt to raise objections. For example, where local companies use logos (like the five rings) or slogans or just generally–and not necessarily in a cynical way–spot a business opportunity in the fact that at the moment the Olympics is very much on people’s minds.

You might anyway think that LOCOG have been unnecessarily heavy-handed in their treatment of some of the businesses who they see as offenders. Marketing Week have published a list of the top five Olympic branding breaches which illustrate some of the more extreme cases they’ve come across. Can you spot the odd one out?

There have also been some quite creative attempts to sidestep the branding police. It’s not clear though, even with these less blatant cases, whether LOCOG still think they have justifiable grounds for complaint.

Monsieur de Coubertin would probably not want to have lived to see his Olympic ideals come to this. Enjoy Seb Coe’s Big Sports Day.

(Image: Creative Commons licence from Viktor Hertz)

In music news…

It seems that copyright-related controversy has unexpectedly reared its ugly head on the current tour of resurrected Madchester popsters, the Stone Roses. Photographers are boycotting events because the band are insisting that they have copyright ownership of any photos taken.

Where photographs are concerned copyright usually belongs to the photographer concerned, even if he or she is employed by another organisation on a freelance basis.

The National Union of Journalists, who are backing the strike, says that if the band are concerned that photos taken at the gigs are not used on unauthorised merchandise they ought to ask photographers to sign a contract agreeing not to re-use or sell their work for this purpose, rather than insisting they hand over copyright lock stock and barrel. The union has duly prepared a contract to this effect but the band seem to be made of stone and are refusing to adopt it. The stand-off continues.

(Image of “Stone Roses” [see what I did?] : Creative Commons licence from tomaszd)

Is it OK to shoot the messenger?

And if so, should Google be taking some bullets?

I’ve just been reading this interesting news story. It seems that hundreds of thousands of copyright owners every week are spotting websites reproducing their content without permission, then complaining to Google about it.

Should a notice like this be posted at the entrance to the Library?

It’s not surprising that website owners are taking umbrage at this. What maybe is noteworthy is that it’s Google they complain to and not the owners of the offending sites. Is it because people now use “Google” and  “the internet” as interchangeable terms? As in: “I found it on Google”? Do they think that Google actually hosts all this material in the same way as YouTube does with video clips, whereas in fact all they are doing is indexing it? Isn’t it a bit like someone finding sexist or racist material in a library book and complaining to staff about it?

Or do they see Google as some kind of internet policeman? It’s unlikely that historically Google has solicited complaints of this sort, although it seems that they’re now prepared to acknowledge that copyright infringements are an issue with material posted on the web: they’ve added a copyright section to their Transparency Report, detailing the take-down requests they’ve received along with a list naming and shaming repeat offenders. What I can’t find on any of these pages though is an assurance that offending material will be removed…

(Image: Creative Commons licence from ALA – The American Library Association)

Football update

Anyone who follows a football team for any length of time knows that the lows far outnumber the highs. For me one such low occurred the last time I turned out to cheer my team on last weekend.

Early in the second half the opposing goalkeeper took a hopeful but aimless punt upfield, as goalkeepers do. This is something which happens ten, maybe twenty, times in a game and rarely produces excitement of any kind. Imagine then, if you will, my consternation and that of my fellow supporters as we looked up to see the ball get caught in the wind, bounce and sail over the head of our own hapless goalie and into the net.

Of course it’s rare that non-league football hits the headlines. One incident which received rather more media coverage was when the same thing happened in a Premiership match last January when Everton’s Tim Howard scored a similar goal.

Predictably, within hours of the ball crossing the line a video clip of the Howard goal appeared on YouTube. Some time later there was an objection from the Premier League that the extract had been uploaded to the site without their permission and hence it had to be taken down.

At the time there was some discussion on the copyright mailing list I subscribe to (you’re jealous, aren’t you?) as to the whys and wherefores of this. Were the Premier League within their rights to complain? Maybe yes, given the fact that they claim ownership of TV footage of Premiership matches. What, though, if a spectator had filmed it himself on his phone? Could the Premier League justifiably object to this?

Would this be comparable to someone filming a live musical performance? Generally this wouldn’t be permissible because of a part of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act which gives individuals a “performance right”. This obliges anyone wanting to film a performance and share it with others to seek permission before doing so. This is why lecturers need to give their OK before their lectures are filmed.

Either way it’s doubtful that Tim Howard would object too strongly to having the single goalscoring achievement in his footballing career publicised as widely as possible.

(Image: Creative Commons courtesy of jbelluch) Copyright courses and education in plain English

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