‘Happy Birthday Song’ Public Domain Debate Over, Warner/Chappell Loses Copyright

By Steve Nagel on Oct 23, 2015 07:31 PM EDT

Perhaps the most absurd tale of copyright infringement has finally been put behind us. Thought by many to be a practical joke, the all-too-ubiquitous "Happy Birthday Song" (assumed to be public domain by most) has, in fact, been protected under law, making pretty much all of us law-breakers -- that is, until recently. The rights holder, Warner/Chappell (a division of Warner Music Group), has been collecting up to an estimated $2 million a-year in royalties from "Happy Birthday Song" media appearances. However, they have finally lost the lawsuit filed against them over what can now be considered "fallacious restrictions" against the reappearance of lyrics that Warner/Chappell may never have owned to begin with, making the "Happy Birthday Song" a public domain staple once again.

The story of how the ceremonial tune became protected under copyright law is, unshockingly, more interesting than the story of how it was dropped. Written and published in 1893 by Mildred and Patty Hill in a painstaking process of research and development (to help schoolchildren as young as three memorize a melody), the tune was not always birthday-related.

The original title, "Good Morning to All", along with its original set of lyrics, can be found in an old songbook that was uncovered and used as evidence in the recent proceedings against Warner/Chappell. The "Happy Birthday Song" version, which inevitably captured public interest, was finally registered in 1935 by the Clayton F. Summy Company. After that, a string of countless multi-million dollar transfer deals eventually led the song to Warner/Chappell.

Over the years, cases of media retractions, fines or reprimands for innocent and noncommercial usage of the tune have grown beyond ridiculous and appear to highlight a broader issue with copyright laws as a whole. The current lawsuit is handled by attorney Randall Newman, who is acting on behalf of client Jennifer Nelson. Nelson is a documentarian who specifically set out to tell the tale of the song's curious history and was herself fined $1,500 for the rights to use the song in her film.

This case was just one in a long line of incidents, some fetching a much higher price for the privilege. In one notorious incident, the acclaimed 1987 civil rights documentary series, Eyes on the Prize, was, from the mid-90s until 2005, barred from re-runs for a benign scene in which activists happen to sing the song.

The final blow to Warner/Chappell came in the form of a stern reversal on their original copyright claim, with a judge determining that (from Clayton F. Summy through to Warner/Chappell) the holding companies never actually had control over the "Happy Birthday" lyrics, but instead to a particular piano arrangement. Further proceedings will determine if money will be returned to those who have been affected by the now-defunct copyright claim.

At least for now, Mildred and Patty Hill, the sisters that wrote the tune more than a century ago, might take some solace in the joyful theme no longer ripping apart the wallets of those who choose to share it publicly. The "Happy Birthday Song's" public domain "formal entrance" will likely not change the routines for any birthday celebrators anywhere, but it does do much to dispel the notion that a company can hold onto certain intellectual property without a truly clear claim to such rights.

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TagsWarner Music Group, Happy Birthday, Copyright Law, Happy Birthday Song

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