Singing waiters, rejoice. Your time of birthday deliverance is at hand.
If you’ve ever been out to eat, you know that there are three certainties in modern casual dining: that a tip is 20 percent, that the TV with the game you’re interested in isn’t visible from your table, and that if it’s your birthday, you will be humiliated by a team of waiters singing anything but “Happy Birthday.” You may hear the William Tell Overture. (“Merry day of birth to you, have some cake and candles too!”) You may get painfully rewritten lyrics set to “Stand by Me” or “Kill the Wabbit” … uh, I mean “Flight of the Valkyries.” But you will not get the classic off-key grade-school anthem that has shattered eardrums since time immemorial.
A federal court recently ruled that “Happy Birthday’s” copyright is dead. More than dead. According to the judge, the song should have been out of copyright 80 years ago, making its rights the musical equivalent of a George Romero zombie movie. (“Caaaaaaaaaake.”)
Silly argument? Not for the owner and not for anyone wanting to belt out the birthday ballad in public. In fact, “Happy Birthday” has been big business, generating about $2 million a year in royalties from movie producers, restaurants and anyone else who wanted the song and didn’t want a visit from the Warner-Chappell attorneys.
I’ll write that again. Two million dollars a year. For a song that pre-dates World War I.
OK, that does seem silly.
Mind you, this isn’t a diatribe against having copyright at all, or patents, or trademarks, or all the other wonderful things that encourage ideas and ensure a creator gets something of what’s coming to them. (Mark Twain famously said that a country without patent laws was like a crab, only able to travel sideways or backwards.) But it is possible to stay at the party too long. And when “fair compensation” starts to turn into “I’m holding you up because I can,” that’s when people start to object.
We saw a more serious version of this recently in the medical world. The media – both mass and social – exploded after the new owner of a common AIDS drug, Daraprim, announced that its price would go up from $13.50 to $750 a dose. By most estimates, the drug costs about $1 a dose to make.
The word “outrage” doesn’t really go far enough. Twitter went nuclear. Everyone from patients to politicians added their denunciations. And within a day or two of the online fire and brimstone, a white flag went up – Daraprim’s price would go down again. (By how much has not yet been said as I write this.)
Call it supply and demand in vivid action. An owner can charge what he likes for a product. But if no one wants to pay it – if people are actively offended by paying it – it’s time to find another price or another product.
At the bottom of all this is a much-derided word: fair. “Life’s not fair,” we’re told over and over again. But one of our more admirable qualities as a species is a rock-bottom belief that it should be. Granted, sometimes we go too far – anything can go too far – but for the most part, it’s a guide to common decency, empathy, and all the qualities encapsulated in “liberty and justice for all.”
Fairness means we look out for each other, because one day it might be ourselves. It means we think about what we do and why. It means we don’t take unjust advantage of a situation.
We’re not perfect about it. We’re not going to be. But the fact that we still care about trying says something good about us.
Maybe it’s like anything else – if we keep trying, it gets easier. It might even become a piece of cake.
And when it does, we’re all set to sing.