The timeless classic “Happy Birthday” has been around in some form since as early as the late 19th century. However, for the last 80 years, there has been an underlying ownership claim to the song which has required those who had performed the song to pay license fees or royalties.
First, a little background about the song “Happy Birthday.” In 1893 Patty and Mildred Hill composed a tune called “Good Morning to All.” Around 1912, lyrics were added to this tune and the song became “Happy Birthday to You.” Up until this time, there were never any registered copyrights for the song and it is even disputed if the song itself was written down anywhere. The reason that this is an important aspect of the story is that one of the requirements for a copyright to exist is that it be embodied in a “tangible medium of expression.” (See my blog post “WHAT’S IN A COPYRIGHT?”).
In 1935 a company named The Summy Company registered the copyright in a song entitled “Happy Birthday.” This copyright was then purchased by Warner/Chappell Music for an estimated $5 million.
Modernly, Warner/Chappell Music has aggressively protected what the Guinness Book of Records calls the “the most recognized song in the English language.” Synchronization licenses (a license to use the music in a TV show or movie) can cost thousands of dollars with willful copyright infringement coming with a hefty $150,000 penalty.
In 2013, a class action lawsuit was filed against Warner/Chappell Music to refute their copyright claim to the renowned song. The class action was brought by Good Morning to You Productions Corp. on behalf of the individuals and companies who had to shell out sometimes thousands of dollars to use the song in television shows and movies joined the suit. One of the main arguments against Warner/Chappell’s ownership is simple, that the original tune, made in 1893, is no longer subject to copyright protection.
Like most other laws in the U.S, copyright laws have evolved over time. The largest milestones in copyright law in the U.S have been in the years 1790, 1909, 1976, and 1998. Without going too specific into each law, copyrights under the 1790 law enjoyed a duration (how long they lasted) of up to 28 years. Then the Copyright Act of 1909 changed the duration to a maximum of 56 years. The modern 1976 Copyright Act changed the duration to the life of the author plus 50 years. Finally, duration was changed to where we are today, the life of the author plus 70. As you can see from the duration of copyrights above, a work that was copyrighted in 1893 would likely not still be valid.
As of now, the suit is slowly inching towards trial with motions having been heard as recent as March of 2015. Either way, this trial is likely to last for a while as the battle between one of the largest music publishers in the world continues.
For more information on copyright laws, contact Biletsky Law