Birthday Treat: No More Copyright Fees

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February 9, 2016

“Happy Birthday” is free for all.

Warner/Chappell, a music publisher, has agreed to end its lawsuit over copyright ownership of what is perhaps the world’s most famous song, “Happy Birthday to You.” Under the terms of the settlement, which must still be approved by a federal judge, Warner/Chappell will pay $14 million it has collected in recent years from people who sang the song in public.

The hearing before U.S. District Court Judge George H. King is scheduled for March 14. King ruled in September 2015 that Warner/Chappell did not own the rights to the lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You.” The music publisher had bought the rights to the song from the Clayton Summy Company in 1988, for $22 million; since then, estimates are that the publisher has more than made its money back, with some industry observers estimating a $2 million a year intake.

The lawsuit began with action by Jennifer Nelson, a film director who was making a documentary about the song and was told that if she wanted to depict performances of the song in her film, she would have to pay a licensing fee of $1,500. Other parties, including a well-known musician and two well-known music producers, joined Nelson in her suit.

The song has long had a copyright fee attached to it. People who wanted to use the song in films or stage productions or concerts or other public performances have, for many years, had to pay a copyright permissions fee. The song, created by schoolteacher Patty Smith Hill and her sister, Mildred Hill, in the 19th Century, has been called by many people the most famous song in the English language.

Private performances, as at birthday parties in people’s homes, have not been subject to copyright restrictions. Public performances, however, have been. Many a discussion through the years has argued the merits of both sides of the debate of whether people’s singing the song at a private birthday party that is in a public place (like a restaurant) constitutes a public performance.

The song was first published in 1893, in a book titled Song Stories for the Kindergarten. The melody was what many people find familiar today; the song title and lyrics were different. The original title was “Good Morning to All.” In 1935, Jessica Hill, sister to Mildred and Patty, published the song as “Happy Birthday to You.”

The original copyright was due to expire in 1991. However, owners of the rights to the song have been successful in getting the copyright extended, so much so that the officially listed copyright expiration date is 2030.

In the latest lawsuit, however, the judge ruled that the existing copyright applied only to a specific piano arrangement of the song, not to the melody or the lyrics.

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