Birthday song not under copyright, judge says

Glenn W. Peterson

In early August, we wrote about a lawsuit that has been playing out in court for the past two years. The subject of this two-year standoff: a little tune called “Happy Birthday.” If you haven’t been following the case, a copyright dispute over the birthday song may seem trivial. At stake, however, were millions of dollars per year in licensing fees related to what may be the world’s most widely known song.

The company Warner Music claims ownership of the copyright – specifically the publishing arm of the company, referred to as Warner/Chappell. And because the song is so popular and so well-known, Warner/Chappell has been collecting some $5,000 every day for more than a quarter-century. Anyone wishing to use the song commercially has had to pay licensing fees. At least, that was the case until an important court ruling earlier this week.

A federal judge in California has ruled that the birthday song is in the public domain, which means that Warner/Chappell does not own the copyright to it. Instead, what was supposedly copyrighted in 1935 was not the song or the lyrics, but rather a particular piano melody.

The 1935 copyright was W/C’s main evidence proving ownership. In recent months, however, a 1922 songbook was discovered that contained the song “Happy Birthday.” In that book, the song was published with no notice of copyright.

Commenting on the case, an attorney for some of the plaintiffs noted that “Warner/Chappell has been squeezing money out of a lot of people for a long time.” He added: “The song belongs to the American people.” Another attorney said: “Happy Birthday is finally free after 80 years.”

If you didn’t previously know that the birthday song was copyrighted, this court decision probably won’t have much impact on your life. But because each of us has a birthday and wants to be celebrated, it’s at least good to know that “Happy Birthday” is a song owned by everyone.