Go ahead and sing

Time was, before some nameless bureaucratic committee decided that a three-day weekend at this cold and dreary time of year would be a good thing, Americans celebrated the February birthdays of Presidents Lincoln and Washington on the 12th and 22nd of the month.

I admit I was never unhappy to have a Monday off work even though a part of me was troubled with the notion of combining the birthdays of these indispensable leaders with those of Warren Harding and that cluster of late 19th century presidents with hipster beards. But what’s done is done.

Still, this column finds itself located between those two February birthdates, and so I’d like to go back to that earlier time and celebrate individually those two great presidents by singing a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Oh, and don’t worry, it is now legal for me to do so.

Well, I guess technically it was legal before, so long as you paid for the privilege. But now in a settlement that will relieve birthday celebrants from sea to shining sea, U.S. District Judge George King declared that the ubiquitous melody will now be able to be sung without paying a licensing fee. Just this month Warner Music Group and its music publishing company agreed to drop all claims to ownership of the song which will likely now become part of the public domain.

My guess is most regular people didn’t pay anybody anything anyway. That’s because most owners of copyrights don’t send agents to monitor compliance at birthday parties in private homes. (Sudden crashing sound of a front door being splintered open. “You! Grandma! Back away from the cake serving knife! You realize that little ditty you scofflaws just sang is going to cost you $3.75.”)

No, they are after the establishments that stand to make money off the song. Of course, businesses get around it by making their own birthday songs. You know, when you are at one of those chain restaurants and the waitstaff hovers around a birthday table and rhythmically claps while singing a version of, “Happy, happy, happy; birthday, birthday, birthday; from our restaurant to you! Wahoo!” (All rights reserved.)

I’ve written a few songs that I took the trouble to copyright. Now, I may not have the law exactly right in all its particulars, but from what I can piece together, in the United States the copyright on a song is good for 95 years. That means a song I write today will be my property until 2111, and that means my grandchildren’s grandchildren will be able to sing my songs without paying a fee. But 95 years from now, there will probably be robots writing such alluring and hypnotic music that my great-great grandkids will be hooked on future robot rock and won’t care about my songs anyway.

I remember being surprised to learned, after many years of singing it illegally, that “Happy Birthday” was copyrighted. That’s the trouble with so many rules and regulations: we often break the law without even knowing it. We have become a nation of unwitting criminals.

I guess one solution is for the general public to become more educated about the voluminous decrees our various governments foist on us. Another might be to employ more agents to stop us when we unknowingly run afoul of the law. Another possibility is — and I know this is crazy talk — I suppose we could maybe, possibly have fewer laws. Just putting it out there.

Perhaps I can best sum up my feelings in a song:

All these rules put me in a tizzy /

Am I breaking a law? It’s making me dizzy /

Just one law, that would be so cool /

If we could all just abide by the Golden Rule.

(all rights reserved)