Copyright Case: Who Owns “Happy Birthday”?

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Time to blow out the candles

Thinking of video taping that special someone’s Birthday festivities? Not so fast… You may be documenting an unfolding crime. Unbeknownst to myself and the general public, you could potentially be treading the line of infringing upon United States Copyright Law. As soon as the widely believed “timeless classic”, “Happy Birthday to You” ballad escapes your lips you are leaving yourself susceptible to civil lawsuit by the copyright holder; in this case, Warner/Chappell Music Inc. To prevent one’s self from running afoul of the law one must pay the $1500 licensing fee imposed by Warner/Chappell Music Inc.

Good Morning to You Productions, who was making a documentary on the origins of the timeless classic “Happy Birthday to You” was an unhappy beneficiary of the Warner/Chappell Music Inc. licensing fee. Considering this licensing fee to be draconian they questioned the validity of this copyright. The crux of the contention they had with the copyright was when the song was initially conceived. Warren/Chappell Music Inc. asserts the copyright was based on a piano arrangement published in 1935. Based on present Copyright law that would mean the “Happy Birthday to You” song would not become public domain until a full 95 years have elapsed. The caveat that Good Morning to You Productions is contesting is when truly “Happy Birthday to You” arrangement was produced and published. According to Good Morning to You Productions there is significant evidence that “Happy Birthday to You” was based on a prior published tune dating back to 1893. Not only would that mean the copyright elapsed (present copyright law specifies works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain) but that their copyright is invalid (being it was based on a previously published song).

The “Happy Birthday to You” song lawsuit has potential steep financial ramifications. Guinness Book of World Records cites “Happy Birthday to You” as the most popular song in the English language. According to the plaintiff’s (Good Morning to You Productions) lawyer Mark C. Rifkin, he estimates Warner/Chappell Music Inc collects 2 million dollars per year in licensing fees. Mr. Rifkin is hoping/anticipating this suit will be given class action lawsuit status to potentially recoup for every party who has had to pay licensing fees since 2009. In the meantime party goers, eager parents, television producers and just about everyone else hang in the balance.