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Happy Birthday to Everyone! "Happy Birthday" Finally Enters Public Domain

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If you're a movie or television character, you know that singing "Happy Birthday" at a party is an expensive extravagance. While there are easy workarounds, like singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" or making up a new song entirely, it's really just not the same as the old familiar tune. Luckily, characters will soon be able to sing the real thing, thanks to a federal ruling in Los Angeles.

On Tuesday, federal Judge George H. King ruled that Warner/Chappell Music, the group that has been raking in an estimated $2 million a year from "Happy Birthday," never really had ownership of the copyright. Warner has been charging for royalties on the song since 1988, when the company purchased Birch Tree Group, the successor to the Clayton F. Summy Co., which owned the original copyright.

Mildred and Patty Hill, creators of the original "Good Morning to All" song on which "Happy Birthday" is based, assigned their rights to their publisher, Clayton F. Summy. While the song shares the same tune and arrangement as "Happy Birthday," the lyrics are different. "Good Morning to All" has already entered the public domain, but Warner/Chappell claimed that "Happy Birthday" was still under their ownership, thanks to a copyright claim that was filed by Summy in 1935. Over the years, there has been a lot of squabbling amongst lawyers about whether "Happy Birthday" was really written by the Hill sisters, if they had abandoned their rights, and/or if the song was invented by the public. 

In yesterday's ruling, Judge King determined that Warner/Chappell only has the copyright for the arrangement of the music and not the actual tune or lyrics. As a result, the well-known song can finally enter the public domain, making it free for the public to use. 

"'Happy Birthday' is finally free after 80 years," said Randall Newman, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys in the suit.

Finally, television and movie characters can sing the song the rest of us have been singing for over 100 years.

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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million
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Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

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environment
California's Proposed Straw Ban Won't Actually Threaten Restaurant Employees With Jail Time
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Drinking straws are easy to find at eateries, but not so much in recycling bins. To curb pollution, California lawmaker Ian Calderon introduced a bill in January that would reduce plastic straw use in restaurants. Thanks to the measure's wording, it caused an uproar, Munchies reports. As it currently reads, restaurant employees would face $1000 fines or jail sentences of up to six months if they provide a straw to a customer unasked.

Calderon, the majority leader of the California State Assembly, says that the bill wasn’t meant to be so harsh. He chalked its language up to miscommunication, explaining to The Washington Post that the California Office of Legislative Counsel drafted the bill into a state health code section with jail penalties. They didn’t have time to fix it, and Calderon planned to amend the bill’s wording before it reached a committee. (He still intends to remove its criminal penalties.)

Backlash aside (one Republican politician called for people to mail Calderon their straws), Calderon simply wanted to introduce a measure that required sit-down restaurants to adhere to a straws-upon-request policy. Fast-food restaurants, cafés, and delis wouldn’t have to adhere to the guideline.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans,” Calderon said in a statement. “AB 1884 is not ban on plastic straws. It is a small step towards curbing our reliance on these convenience products, which will hopefully contribute to a change in consumer attitudes and usage.”

Straws play a small—yet undeniable—part in our world’s ever-growing plastic waste problem. They typically wind up in landfills, and can end up in the ocean if proper disposal methods aren’t followed. This harms marine life, as fish and other creatures can mistake bits of broken-down straws for food.

Cities in California, including Manhattan Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz, have implemented their own versions of a straw ban. Berkeley and Los Angeles might soon follow suit, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As for Calderon’s bill: It still needs to be revised, voted on, and approved. So nothing’s set in stone (or plastic) for now.

[h/t Munchies]

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