For 120 years Warner/Chappell Publishing has been demanding payment for the use of the song "Happy Birthday," but a new documentary and lawsuit provides some strong evidence that the song has actually been in the public domain all this time. Such a ruling would mean that Warner/Chappell would be forced to not only forfeit the high licensing fees it now receives from it, but also potentially have to return hundreds of millions of dollars as well.
During the making of a documentary on the song, researchers have uncovered evidence that the song has actually been in the public domain at least since 1920, a claim that many copyright scholars have maintained for years.
"Happy Birthday To You" actually started its life as "Good Morning To All" which was published in 1883. The "happy birthday" lyrics appeared in 1901 with a note that the song was sung to the melody of "Good Morning To You" in an edition of the Inland Educator and Indiana School Journal. This was reiterated in a book in 1907, then published with notation in 1911. There were a variety of copyright claims since, but virtually all were held to be invalid or expired.
It seems that Warner/Chappell might hold a copyright on the original song (might being the operative word here), but not on "Happy Birthday To You," although the company has claimed copyright of the song even though the original copyright has long since run out. Now that a suit has been filed, it should be very interesting to see how the company responds.
While it won't shake anyone's world to have "Happy Birthday" back in the public domain, at least it will get rid of the substandard efforts to take its place in restaurants everywhere. You can read more detail, and see the complaint document here.
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