Popular Culture

The Song ‘Happy Birthday’ Is Now Free For All



Copyrighting ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is a bit like charging $8 for water at a music festival. You know everyone wants it, you know you’re the only one who has it, and so you’re going to gouge people on the price.

Since 1988, the oft-sung song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ was under copyright by the Warner Music Group, to the annoyance of many. In particular, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Arby’s, among countless others, were denied the use of the song without paying for licensing fees, which could become expensive.

In lieu of paying those fees, restaurants had to make up their own crazy ‘Happy Birthday’ tunes — that’s why you’ll almost never be sung the real ‘Happy Birthday’ song in a restaurant like that. Your childhood probably suffered indelibly.

Well now, that’s all over, and we would totally support you if you wanted to sue for emotional damages.

A judge ruled on Tuesday, Sept. 22 that the copyright on the Happy Birthday song is invalid. Prior to this decision, the Warner/Chappell music company earned about $2 million in licensing fees per year for this song alone.

This decision came as a result of a lawsuit filed two years ago by the Good Morning To You Productions Corp., arguing that the original tune of the song, originally titled ‘Good Morning To All’ has long been in the public domain. The same company is also working on a documentary of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song tentatively titled “Happy Birthday,” which was probably a huge motivating factor in working to free the song from the now-invalid copyright restriction.

The copyright was ruled invalid because it was discovered that the original company who filed the copyright did not acquire the rights to the lyrics, and since the original tune is in the public domain, the entirety of the song itself is now free to the public, if the ruling stands.

To add insult to injury, the lawsuit also asks for monetary damages, as well as restitution. Warner/Chappell may have to pay back as much as $5 million they collected in licensing fees going back at least as far as 2009.

The lawsuit also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees it said in 2013 that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who’ve paid to use the song over the years.

Is this all much ado about nothing? Well, apart from the fact that now you can sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to your friends and family at Chili’s, this lawsuit calls attention to a larger problem and refocuses the real reason of copyright laws: “protect the creations of people who make stuff so that we can continue to make more stuff,” and not to virtually extort anyone who dares sing Happy Birthday (at least in a commercial enterprise).

The New York Times reports that one musician, Ruypa Marya of the music group Ruypa & The April Fishes, had to pay $455 dollars to include the song on an album, on which her fellow band members sang the song to her on her birthday. The simple inclusion of the song on an album cost her well over 400 dollars. Doesn’t seem fair to me.

Lisa Lo Paro
Lisa is a freelance writer and bibliophile living on the outskirts of New York City. She likes 2 a.m. with a good book, takes cream in her coffee and heavily filters her photos. Check out her blog The Most Happy, her Instagram, and Twitter.

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