Fortunes for tunes

By: Brian Rogers brian@thesun.co.nz

A few sweet notes equal banknotes

Some of the world's most  important inventions – despite being discoveries that have changed the course of humanity – have left their creators penniless.

Meanwhile some of the most inane songs ever written have scored the creators easy millions for the rest of their lives.

Recently we took a look at inappropriate songs in all the wrong places.  This week we delve into the earnings of the music industry, and compare some extraordinary wealth with the meagre financial rewards of some contributors to the betterment of humanity.

A good song is great tonic, and music plays an important contribution to our lives.

But there's something out of whack when the guy who invents a world-changing device dies a pauper; while a simplistic and even annoying lyric earns millions in royalties for decades.

Rubber cheques

Charles Goodyear’s vulcanising process transforms unstable rubber into a useful product. Goodyear and family lived in poverty and he often served stints in jail for debt. This vulcanization process revolutionised the industry and the world.

He also fought 32 patent infringement cases before his death.

Goodyear was $200,000 in debt.

Meanwhile, Roy Orbison & Bill Dees wrote what many of us think but are not bold enough to exclaim: ‘Oh, Pretty Woman.’

It was always a great song with a classic guitar riff and catchy lyrics. With the release of the movie ‘Pretty Woman’ 25 years after the song it really started bringing in the cash… about US $20m.

Spreadsheet irony

Dan Bricklin developed the first  spreadsheet program in 1979 with his  partner Bob Frankston.

Like many innovative technologies, patents didn't exist for Bricklin’s invention.

It wasn't until the program was in circulation two years later that the Supreme Court ruled that it was patentable. He went on to establish other businesses but it’s ironic that a man who invented such a tool that changed the world of finance forever, never fully benefitted financially from it.

The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’ went two months top of billboards. Sting’s song has brought in more than $25m.

Lightbulb inventor Thomas Edison supposedly left $12 million behind in his will from his inventions. However, its believed he died poor. According to "The Richest" there were many people competing for the right to patent the light bulb as their own. Although it seems that lawyers found a lucrative method to extract money from the famous invention, no inventor truly got their due.

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’, earned more than 100,000 orders of sheet music the day it was released in 1934, and has been covered by a plethora of stars ever since.

The total earnings so far: $25m.

Like the light bulb, the telephone has many claimants. Although many believe that Alexander Graham Bell was its inventor, more information is surfacing about Antonio Meucci who may have invented it five years earlier.

It’s a long story, but patent  complications meant the end of the line for his earning potential.

Sadly, Meucci had developed the telephone system to contact his wife, suffering crippling arthritis, by running a cord from the basement where he worked to her second-floor bedroom.

Although he died in poverty, a vote by the House of Representatives in 2002 (113 years after his death) recognised Meucci as the telephone’s rightful inventor.

Ching ching, Chuck

The cash register wasn’t ringing for the phone inventor but we can blame Chuck Berry for writing the song “My Ding A Ling.” As well as earning notoriety for the most inappropriate song of  all time, it pulled millions in royalties.

Not only did Chuck get away with it, but it spawned covers all over the world ranging from Judge Dread to Prince Tui Teka. Shameless.

The inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenburg died in obscurity, after financiers reclaimed ownership of his printing endeavours. He'd invested so much into the development that he never really recovered the debt, eventually losing everything to the money men.

He’d have been better off just writing a catchy tune. Such as…

Stand by Me: A massive hit in its 1961 release, but enjoyed great resurgence when the movie ‘Stand By Me’ was released. It has earned more than US $27m so far.

Ironically, the man who paved the way for all this great music to sound even better, Edwin Armstrong, never really profited fully. He solved the issue of static, inventing FM radio frequency in 1933. Established broadcasting industries baulked at the idea of replacing transmitters and receivers. Armstrong was embroiled in patent suits. He took his own life.

At about the same time, Bing Crosby was making a killing, singing "White Christmas" by Irving Berlin in 1940.

In fact, Christmas is responsible for a fair whack of royalty riches, with Santa wringing his hands together. Three Festive songs are in the top ten best earners in history.

Who’s happy?

But the top earner in the song charts, the number one highest earning song of all time: Happy Birthday. According to ‘The Richest’, The Hill sisters wrote a song for their kindergarten class to sing on birthdays, in 1893. The sisters penned Happy Birthday and we are still singing it. The ownership of the song has changed hands a few times throughout the years. In 1990, Warner Chappell, a music holding company, bought the rights to the song for $15 million. Today, Happy Birthday brings in a reported $5000 a day, $2 million a year in royalties. The cost of using the song in a movie or on TV is $25,000. It is actually against the law to sing Happy Birthday in a large group of unrelated people such as at an office party. The song has brought in an estimated $50 million.

Most inane

Finally we take our hats off to the Kiwi band, Monte Video and the Cassettes, who although didn’t split the atom or patch the hole in the ozone layer – and certainly didn’t make millions – they reached No.2 on the NZ charts and 11th in Aussie, with the most inane song in the history of the world.

So until next week, "Shoop shoop diddy wop cumma cumma wang dang."

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