It’s one of the most beloved songs in the world—and it’s the poster child for absurdities surrounding modern copyright law.
It’s common belief that “Happy Birthday,” one of the most frequently performed songs in history, is in the public domain—but rights to the song are held by Warner/Chappell, the publishing arm of the Warner Music Group.
Now, a legal challenge contends the song was published without copyright notice in 1922 and that under 1998 federal law, material published prior to 1923 is in the public domain.
“Happy Birthday” has been part of popular culture since the 19th century: Most historical accounts point to the song being written in 1893, when Louisville, Kentucky sisters Mildred and Patty Hill published the song “Good Morning To All,” on which the melody to “Happy Birthday to You” is based.
Birthday-themed versions of the song started appearing in the early 1900s, and soon became a phenomenon. The song's appearance in the 1933 Irving Berlin musical As Thousands Cheer led to a lawsuit and, in 1935, the copyright was registered by the Hill sisters’ publisher, the Clayton F. Summy Co.
The copyright changed hands over the years, and was purchased by the Warner/Chappell in 1988. It was not put into question until 2013, when Jennifer Nelson was filming a documentary movie about the history of the “happy birthday” song and filed a lawsuit asking the court to find that the song is in the public domain and seeking class-action status to compel Warner to return millions of dollars in royalty fees.
Last week, during court proceedings,a “smoking gun” piece of evidence emerged in the form of the 1922 work The Everyday Song Book, which contains the Hills’ version of the happy birthday song, entitled “Good Morning and Birthday Song.”
The final determination about when "Happy Birthday" lost its copyright protection will be made by the judge in the case, sometime in the next few weeks.
Read more about the long and complex history of “Happy Birthday” HERE.