You’d think a song that is everywhere on the Internet — exploding on music charts, racking up billions of streams and downloads and YouTube plays, and even making it into the celebrity zeitgeist as it did this week on Cardi B’s Instagram — would be making its creator filthy rich. But “Baby Shark,” the viral children’s song that’s taken 2019 by storm, isn’t paying out piles of cash to anyone, because no single songwriter has been able to claim ownership over it.
The tune first started bubbling up among U.S. music fans on YouTube a few years ago, when Pinkfong, a South Korean educational band, posted it in 2015 and then remixed it with an absurdly catchy new beat and melody in 2016. But the core song in both versions — the second of which was quickly popularized by K-pop stars and an American social media challenge, and has now been adapted into more than 100 versions in 11 different languages, according to SmartStudy, the company behind Pinkfong — stems from an old singalong chant that seems to date back dozens of years to multiple sources.
A number of parties are currently embroiled in copyright disputes, in court or otherwise, over who first created the song. Johnny Only, a kids’ musician who uploaded the song to his YouTube channel in 2011, filed a complaint in a Seoul court saying that the latest version of the Pinkfong song is too close to his own. Pinkfong, though, says it got the song from an old nursery rhyme, not from any other artist. Then there’s the existence of “Kleiner Hai,” a German dance version of “Baby Shark” that became popular in 2007. “Kleiner Hai” composer Alexandra Müller, told Vulture that she has been singing that song for nearly two decades: “It’s a popular children’s song in Germany. We never found out where it came from. We checked the rights and it was public law, like a Christmas song, so there were no royalties,” she said. Recording rights for specific tracks are one thing, but as far as songwriting goes, the origin of “Baby Shark” seems more mysterious than that of “Happy Birthday.”