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Would You Pay Money To Sing ‘Happy Birthday’?

When Patty and Mildred Hill wrote “Good Morning to You” in 1893, they never dreamed a century later there would be a court battle over the “Happy Birthday” song. Patty taught school in Louisville, Kentucky, and she and her sister devised ways of teaching the children that complemented their strengths, which were playing the piano and composing music. After writing the tune, Patty used a number of different lyrics with it to sing with her school children. The children would sing, “Goodbye to You,” “Happy Christmas to You,” Happy Journey to You,” and many others, including “Happy Birthday to You.”

Warner Music Group claims that the specific “Happy Birthday” lyrics were not actually authorized in an actual printed form until 1935, so therefore, they own the rights to the song until the year 2030. Warner says they purchased the rights to the song when they bought the Birchtree company in 1988 for $25 million. The “Happy Birthday” song generates close to $2.8 million in licensing fees every year for Warner because of its use in TV and film. Restaurant owners who sing “Happy Birthday” to their customers don’t use the original “Happy Birthday” song because using it means they have to pay licensing fees to Warner Music.

A group of performers and singers have decided to challenge Warner Music to make the “Happy Birthday” song public domain. The performers and singers have uncovered a written edition of the song that dates back to 1922. The edition states that it is published with special permission. The lawyers for the plaintiffs say that according to the 1998 law, anything published before 1923 is public domain.

Jennifer Nelson, a film and documentary maker, first started this battle when she asked for permission to use the “Happy Birthday” song and was charged $1,500 for permission to use it. The case will be heard by Judge George King in federal court in Los Angeles later this year. The performers and singers who are challenging Warner Music are asking that Warner return licensing fees that they have collected from the song since 2009.

“It is one of the few songs that you’ve heard for as long as you’ve lived, and you kind of think of it as a folk song,” said Professor Robert Brauneis at the George Washington University Law School, who in 2010 published a sceptical study of the song’s copyright.

“Our clients want to give “Happy Birthday to you” back to the public, which is what Patty Hill wanted all along,” said Mr. Mark Rifkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

“Happy Birthday” is easily the most widely sung and recognized song in the world, and its lyrics have been translated into 18 different languages. This song is sung millions of times a year and has been incorporated into watches, greeting cards, and other musical accessories. Does Warner maintain the right to charge for the use of this song? Should it legally be given back to the public to use free? What do you think?

[Image via Shutterstock]