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Filmmaker seeks to cancel copyright to ‘Happy Birthday’ song

“Happy Birthday to You” is perhaps the most-sung song in the U.S. and Las Vegas is no exception. Just about everyone child gets serenaded with the tune at his or her birthday parties. Perhaps no song is more well-known.

But readers have probably noticed that in movie or television scenes involving a birthday party, the guests rarely sing the song all the way through. Sometimes they may sing a similar tune but not sing “Happy Birthday” at all. That is because, unlike many other old songs, “Happy Birthday” is copyrighted and getting permission to use the song in a commercial work costs money.

And Warner Music Group, which owns the copyright, does not exactly give away licenses to use the song. One documentary filmmaker was told she would have to pay $1,500 to include the song in one of her movies. The director has since filed commercial litigation against Warner and its publishing subsidiary, Warner/Chappell Music, claiming that the company’s copyright may be long-expired and is not as broad as claimed in any case. She is seeking class-action status with a class to be made of any business or individual who has paid Warner for the right to use “Happy Birthday.”

Two sisters wrote the melody to the song in 1893. Originally called “Good Morning to All,” the song eventually acquired the well-known birthday wishes, though just how that happened is not known for sure. Warner/Chappell acquired the copyright in 1988, and has collected up to $50 million in license fees since then.

But according to the lawsuit, that claim over its rights is not valid. At best, the suit contends, the company own copyrights over “specific piano arrangements” for the tune.

“Happy Birthday’s” copyright is scheduled to expire in the U.S. no sooner than 2030, though it scheduled to expire in Europe in 2016.


Source: Business Insider, “Filmmaker Files $50 Million Lawsuit Over The Song ‘Happy Birthday’,” Sean Michaels, June 14, 2013

John P. Aldrich
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