The song we know as “Happy Birthday to You” has been around since the 19th century, with various lyrics. The version we know was first published in 1911, and was copyrighted in 1935. Warner/Chappell Music acquired that copyright in 1988. You may have noticed that restaurant chains don’t sing that song when it’s your birthday, and you rarely see it in movies. That’s because Warner/Chappell Music wants to collect royalties every time it’s performed in public. But that changed today, as a federal judge declared the song to be in the public domain.
The class action lawsuit that produced Tuesday’s ruling began when documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson was told she would have to pay $1,500 to use “Happy Birthday to You.” The suit claimed that the song was actually in the public domain.
According to [Attorney Mark] Rifkin, the “smoking gun” in the case turned up when Warner/Chappell Music handed over documents that included a publication of the song from the early 1920s. That publication predates the 1935 copyright.
The final result was that the judge ruled Warner/Chappell Music’s copyright extends only to specific arrangements, not to the song itself.
Rifkin said the next phase in the case will be determining whether or not Warner/Chappell Music has to pay back the money it collected over the years from exercising the copyright.
Read more about the song’s history and today’s ruling at Buzzfeed.
(Image credit: Fir0002)