binary birthdayScot Sandra Burt was singing to herself to pass the time as she stocked shelves at the grocery store where she works, in Clackmannashire, Scotland. Imagine her surprise when the UK's Performing Right Society (PRS), sent her a letter warning that she could be fined for singing songs written by its clients without paying a royalty.

Apparently, PRS and the store owners had already tangled once over unlicensed music broadcast in the store. PRS has since come to its senses and sent Burt a letter of apology.

However, the question reminded me of a fact I came across recently; the rights to the song "Happy Birthday To You" are privately owned, and every time it is performed in public, such as at a local restaurant, money is due the owners of the song. I heard this sung by the staff of a restaurant to honor a customer just two days ago, and I'm betting I witnessed an act of piracy.


"Happy Birthday To You" was copyrighted in 1935 by the Summy Company, and the current owner, Warner Chappell, paid $15 million for the rights in 1990. He claims that his copyright is valid until 2030, although scholar Robert Brauneis of the Law School at George Washington University called this into question in a paper about this issue, citing "... a lack of evidence about who wrote the words; defective copyright notice; and a failure to file a proper renewal applications."

The issue is no laughing matter, as witnessed by the recent controversy started by The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), over whether the playing of a song as a ring tone when you receive a call in a public place can be considered a public performance. If so, we are all pirates. Aargh.

In the United States ASCAP and the Broadcast Music Inc. employ representatives who cruise restaurants and other venues checking for unlicensed use of radio feeds and other rights-retained entertainment. Perhaps, before you go out for the night, you should put your phone on "vibrate" and overcome the urge to hum a few bars of your fav to a friend.

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