Possibly one of the most popular songs in the history of the world, Happy Birthday is now in the middle of a classic American lawsuit. The United States is well known for its frivolous law suits — it is the only country in the world where one can sue a major fast food company for making their coffee too hot — and actually win money from it.
For the past 80 years, this song has been under copyright, which is now owned by publishing house Warner Chapell. They earn an estimated $2 million a year from royalties, which is paid to them to use the song in films, TV, radio and advertisements. However, after all this time, someone has finally decided to challenge Warner Chapell in court. Now the fate of this song lies in the ruling of Justice George H King of United States District Court in Los Angeles.
Possibly one of the most famous moments of the ‘Happy Birthday’ song
All of this started when filmmaker Jennifer Nelson approached Warner Chapell for their permission to use the song in her documentary about the history of Happy Birthday . They charged her $1500 to use the song, and she was appalled. Hence, she decided to sue the company. As well as seeking the return of her money, Nelson’s case is fighting for the song to be declared as part of the public domain.
The origin of this song dates back to 1893, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J Hill, wrote the song and performed it for Patty’s kindergarten class. It is alleged that since then the children spontaneously sang the song at birthday parties. The copyright was registered in 1935 after a lawsuit over its usage.
The current copyright is now under threat, as new evidence has come to light that shows that the song was printed in a song book from 1927. This was an authorised publication. However, it took place without any copyright notice or symbol.
The argument goes — under the US copyright laws of the time, the music and lyrics must be considered as part of the public domain, since no one filed a copyright suit at the time. The only copyright still left would only protect certain specific piano arrangements and additional lyrics which are not in common use.
Should this evidence be considered relevant, the US could throw out the decades old copyright for Happy Birthday . This is would obviously be a large blow for Warner Chapell, as the song would then become free for commercial use. There is also speculation that the court may ask them to pay back million of dollars to refund people who have recently been licensed to use the song.
The Happy Birthday case is a classic example of all that is wrong with US copyright laws. These are important issues that need to fixed in order to avoid works that seem to belong to the public domain from being monopolised.
Plus, who isn’t partial to any song that ends with eating cake!
A classic example of how far and wide this song has come can be found in the Indian version below: