For the last 80 years a number of companies have collected royalties on the song known simply as “Happy Birthday.” You know the track. It’s probably one of the first songs you were ever taught, and every single year since you have heard it-or sung it-while celebrating another year of life. What you haven’t seen, and what has been the cause for much discussion over the better part of the last century, is commercial use of the song. The reason for that has been a very confusing tale of copyright, or lack thereof, that has prevented the song from appearing in plays, movies, television, or even music.
This week, a federal judge in Los Angeles decided that not a single one of the companies who have ever claimed the rights to “Happy Birthday” had a valid copyright. The judge ruled that Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the “Happy Birthday To You” song. Warner had been enforcing a copyright since 1988, when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original disputed copyright. Judge George H. King ruled that a copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific piano arrangements of the music, not the actual song.
This series of rulings places the song known as “Happy Birthday” in the public domain, which means anyone anywhere can use the song however they wish without having to pay a cent to anyone else. This also means the song will likely start appearing in movies, television shows, and other areas of media in the near future.
The Los Angeles Times further explored the song’s twisted history, noting that the alleged copyright held by Warner/Chappell had made the company big bucks over the last several decades:
The fact that the birthday tune can’t be played or sung without permission from Warner has been little more than a surprising piece of trivia for most, but for Warner Music Group, it has meant big business. Two of the filmmaker plaintiffs paid $1,500 and $3,000 for the rights to use the song, their attorneys said. Filmmaker Steve James paid Warner $5,000 to use the song in his 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams.”
“It was quite expensive for us at that time and with our budget. And we only used it for 9 seconds,” James wrote in an email passed along by his publicist. James said the scene was “essential” to the film and ultimately decided to pay up.
We predict it won’t be long until the “Happy Birthday” song is everywhere. Send us links on Twitter when you find the song in use.