You Tube licensing row could doom your happy birthday

March 24, 2009

You Tube licensing row could doom your happy birthdayIf you’re thinking of putting a clip of a birthday party online, beware. YouTube’s draconian response to a licensing row with Warner Music means renditions of Happy Birthday could be pulled from the site.

To be fair, this isn’t happening yet. But it is the logical conclusion of an already heavy-handed crackdown on clips featuring copyrighted lyrics and melodies.

Warner and YouTube have failed to negotiate a renewal to a deal which pays Warner a cut of advertising revenue from commercials shown besides music videos featuring performers on its labels. With no licensing in place, YouTube has pulled all Warner-copyrighted content.

If you’re wondering how long it would take somebody to go through all the clips and find the relevant songs, the answer is that there’s little or no human involvement. Instead it appears YouTube has an automated system which simply removes all videos matching a list of songs provided by Warner and mutes clips which feature the relevant music.

In some cases this works well: naturally all Warner music videos have gone, along with user-created montages which use Warner tracks as a soundtrack. But in other cases the results are unexpected: reportedly some clips have been pulled simply because a radio or CD player in the background happened to be playing a copyrighted song.

There are also clips which have been pulled even though it appears the use of the copyrighted song is covered by fair use provisions in copyright laws. In one such case, a clip of a man teaching viewers sign language by signing along to a Foreigner song has been muted.

Arguably the harshest example found by the media so far is that of a student playing and singing Winter Wonderland on a piano. Though regarded by many as a traditional Christmas standard, it’s actually a 1934 song whose copyright remains held by Warner.

Intriguingly Warner also owns a company which claims to own the copyright on Happy Birthday (or to give its correct name, Happy Birthday To You). The song doesn’t appear to have been targeted in the crackdown so far.

It’s possible that the song doesn’t appear on Warner’s hit list because there is some legal dispute over the validity of the copyrighting. Alternatively, it could be that there’s at least one person with the sense to realize that enforcing the copyright on that song on YouTube would be even more of a public relations nightmare.

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