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.
The Happiest Album Ever!
Did you know there is a whole underground genre of Happy Birthday songs floating around the internet? Just search for “Happy Birthday” in Spotify and you’ll come up with hundreds of customized birthday songs.
So why not release your own birthday album? Pick 12 of your favorite names (or the names of your closest friends) and record a few different versions of the song. Once you’re finished, upload the tracks to YouTube or Spotify (ONEprm will allow you to upload to Spotify for free!) and make a little passive (celebratory) income!
Say Thanks to Fans
Now that you won’t have to pay for a sync license, you can film yourself singing Happy Birthday to your superfans and put the shoutouts on YouTube! Your followers will be so excited.
Play It Live!
Technically, you were probably already allowed to do this, since venues are required to pay licensing fees for all the music you play onstage. (Didn’t know that? Click here to learn more!)
It’s always been a good idea to learn “Happy Birthday”, even before it was in the public domain. It gives you the freedom to interact with your audience on a more personal level–if someone is celebrating their birthday by watching you play music, they deserve a shoutout from stage for being so awesome!
You could probably wing “Happy Birthday” (after all, it’s not the most difficult song ever written), but why not take the opportunity to wow everyone in the room with your spectacular rendition of the world’s most famous song?
“Happy Birthday” being moved to the public domain may not seem like an earth shaking decision, but it does underscore the importance of copyrighting your music properly. After all, if the author of Happy Birthday’s lyrics had done that, Warner-Chappell would still be making 2 million dollars a year off of an eight-measure-long song.
Have any other creative uses for Happy Birthday? Let us know in the comments below, or tweet @nationwidedisc your ideas!
- Understanding Copyright- FREE EBOOK
- 4 Tips to Get Your Music Placed in Commercials
- The Why and How of Music Licensing