Judge To Decide If ‘Happy Birthday To You’ Should Be Copyrighted

“Happy Birthday to You” is the most popular song in the English language, and has been sung by children and adults for many years. Most people don’t know the history behind the song, or that a dispute has been going on about “Happy Birthday to You” for decades. According to CBS, a class-action lawsuit against Warner/Chappel Music was filed two years ago because producers and musicians are tired of paying millions of dollars to use “Happy Birthday to You” in their productions.

The decision about the copyright laws surrounding “Happy Birthday to You” is in the hands of a federal judge in California. He may make the decision once and for all if people are breaking the law if they use “Happy Birthday to You” in their high-profile projects without a license.

“People who sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ at birthday parties at home aren’t required to get a license because that’s not a considered a public performance. You aren’t breaking any copyright laws if you sing that short song to your family members, friends, and co-workers.”

It is estimated that Warner/Chappel receives about $2 million a year in licensing fees when “Happy Birthday to You” is used. How did Warner/Chappel come to claim ownership of the short song?

The origin of “Happy Birthday to You” dates back to 1889, when sisters Mildred and Patty Hill wrote it. They sold the copyright to Clayton Summy, who published it in a songbook titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. At that time, the song was known as “Good Morning to All,” with different lyrics. In 1935, Summy’s company copyrighted “Happy Birthday to You.” Warner/Chappel Music acquired Summy’s successor company, Birch Tree Ltd., in 1988, and has been enforcing the copyright law since then. The company insists that people cannot sing the “Happy Birthday to You” lyrics for profit without paying royalties.

The National Law Journal indicates that Judge George King of the Central District of California has heard both sides of the argument, and he could rule in three different ways.

  1. He could require Warner/Chappel to put “Happy Birthday to You” in the public domain so anyone could use the song without paying a fee. If this is the case, Warner/Chappel will be ordered to return millions of dollars collected in the last three years.
  2. He could agree that Warner/Chappel’s copyright is valid, and people would have a choice of not using the song or paying a huge amount of money for the rights to use the song in their production.
  3. The judge could re-schedule a trial because of insufficient information for a ruling.

Do you think companies should have to pay to use “Happy Birthday to You” in their productions?

[image via Getty Images]