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Lawsuit Challenges 'Happy Birthday' Copyright
June 14, 2013

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The song "Happy Birthday" is under copyright, but that might be changing.

Currently, the Warner/Chappell Music owns the copyright to the song, and everyone who sings the song in a movie or television show or TV commercial is required to pay a licensing fee, which is commonly several hundred dollars. That is why the number of verbatim singings of the song in the public commercial arena is so few. Many TV shows and movies go out of their way to sing another kind of song to celebrate someone's birthday.

The song was written by Mildred Hill and Patty Hill in 1893. The original title was "Good Morning to All." The tune stayed the same but the lyrics altered, and "Happy Birthday" was born.

The words appeared in a songbook in 1924, and a piano arrangement was published in 1935. Given the current state of American copyright law, which stipulates that copyright-owners have control of their property for 95 years after initial publication. In this case, the law dates that protection to 1923, which is one year before the year that Warner/Chappell Music says the lyrics first appeared in print.

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit are Good Morning to You Productions, a company that is producing a documentary on the "Happy Birthday." The documentary producers paied a $1,500 licensing fee to Warner/Chappell Music, which said that failure to pay the licensing fee could result in copyright infringement damages up to $150,000. Licensing fees collected through the years exceed $5 million.

The plaintiffs argue that the song, which has been cited by the Guiness Book of Records as the most recognized song in the English language, is so popular that it is in the public domain. The plaintiffs also say they have proof that the song was published in 1901 (which would mean that it was not longer under copyright protection) and that the 1935 piano arrangement was an update, not an original work.

The documentary company has solicited entertainment industry executives to be fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

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