Happy Birthday Now Lives in the Public DomainBy -
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
If you’re a musician who has dabbled at all in the world of music licensing, you know that copyright law and royalty payments can be a confusing mess. It’s a daunting task to find out exactly who owns what piece of the pie, and who needs to be paid for the use of that pie. (Or song.)
Because of the complicated and highly specialized nature of copyright, sometimes I like to use my knowledge of the subject to impress people at parties.
One of the more widely known pieces of copyright trivia that I would pull out to impress my friends is the daunting story of “Happy Birthday,” that simple tune that has so long plagued mid-level chain restaurants.
For most of this century, people have been paying out big bucks for the right to use “Happy Birthday”. Whether in a restaurant, a TV show, or movie, “Happy Birthday” was earning about 2 million dollars every year for Warner-Chappell music.
But in a historic ruling earlier this week, a federal judge in LA ruled that “Happy Birthday” was never actually copyrighted properly and will now fall under public domain.
The melody of the song, originally titled “Good Morning to All,” has been in the public domain for years, but Warner-Chappell was standing on a copyright claim to the lyrics from 1935 that they bought from the original publisher.
Apparently, those lyrics were never actually copyrighted at all.
The plaintiffs who sued Warner-Chappell were actually making a documentary about the song when they found evidence that the song was not actually under copyright protection. They then sued Warner-Chappell music…and won. They are now seeking to turn the lawsuit into a class action suit that would require Warner-Chappell to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So Now What?
Since “Happy Birthday” is now in the public domain, you are free to use it without paying any royalties!
While this might not be the most exciting news you’ve ever heard, it does open up a few possibilities for independent musicians.