- Happy Birthday to You is officially part of the public domain
- A Los Angeles judge ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not have copyright claims over the song
- Warner/Chappell Music previously held copyright to the song since 1988
In parties and celebrations the world over, in different languages and across generations, the song Happy Birthday to You can be considered as a staple to mark the passing of a new year of life.
In fact, it is the Guinness World Record-holder for “most recognizable song in the English language.”
However, it has long been a challenge, especially in the media and music industry, to incorporate this seemingly simple song due to a long-standing copyright claim made by Warner/Chappell Music, which officially held all publishing rights to the song since 1988.
The company has long been criticized for milking money out of this popular song. But a recent decision by a court in Los Angeles has led to the “liberation” of this particular song.
Judge George King ruled that Happy Birthday to You does not belong Warner/Chappell and thus is officially part of the public domain.
The decision came after a class suit was filed in 2013 when the company demanded $1,500 for the use of the song in a low-budget documentary about the song’s history. The producers of that documentary led the plaintiffs.
Another plaintiff, Rupa Marya was asked to pay $455 for including the song in her live album.
“This is a huge victory for the public and for the artists who want to use Happy Birthday to You in their videos and music. Everyone who has a birthday can celebrate,” attorney Daniel Schacht, who represented the plaintiffs, told NBC Los Angeles.
Schacht also added that the “landmark ruling” shows the importance of the public domain and the limits of copyright claims by corporations.
“Strong copyright protection is important for artists and content creators, but it must have limits. This landmark ruling recognizes the value of the public domain,” he explained.
For her part, Marya expressed similar thoughts.
“It’s nice to know the song is officially liberated. People should wake up and realize that we can challenge corporations that are overstepping their place,” she said.
Happy Birthday to You is generally attributed to sisters Patty and Mildren J. Hill who wrote the song in 1893. Decades later, in 1935, the Summy Company registered the copyright to the song in the United States, which was later bought by Warner/Chappell.
However, the judge ruled that the company does not have legal rights over the song. Meanwhile, the company agreed to end its claim of ownership and pay $14 million in a settlement to those who had paid licensing fees to use the song in the previous five decades.