"Happy Birthday to You" was named the most recognizable song in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records. As the story goes, it was written in the 1893 by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, for use in Kindergarten classrooms. Their version was "Good Morning to You," with the lyrics wishing you a good morning instead of a happy birthday. They released the rights to their song to their publishing company in exchange for a cut of the profits. Today, a charity designated by the sisters, Association for Childhood Education International, still receives a cut of the royalties paid out for the Happy Birthday song.
Now a federal judge in Los Angeles has ruled that the copyright for "Happy Birthday to You," which is currently claimed by Warner/Chappel, is invalid. The judge, George King, based his ruling in large part on a 1922 songbook that included the "Good Morning and Birthday Song", with writing credits attributed to the Hill sisters but no mention of a copyright claim. Instead, the note with the song indicates it was published with "special permission" from the publisher who then held the rights. The judge ruled that the copyright claim covered only the tune and specific arrangements, the copyright of which Warner acknowledges has long ago expired. But because the original publisher of "Happy Birthday to You" filed a copyright claim in 1935, Warner argued the copyright to the lyrics would be valid until 2020 in the U.S., per America's onerous copyright laws.
Warner bought the rights from a successor publishing company in 1989, and has been charging royalties ever since. In 2013, law professor Robert Brauneis researched the history of the song, concluding the copyright had almost certainly expired. That inspired the filmmakers behind a documentary about the "Happy Birthday" song to sue Warner. They, like every other filmmaker interested in using the most recognizable song in the world, had to pay Warner if they wanted to use the song. Warner says it charged up to six figures for some uses of the song. Even restaurant owners and others interested in singing a Happy Birthday song in public have shied away from using "Happy Birthday to You" because of the copyright. Warner may make up to $2 million a year in royalties on the song. That charity designated by the Hill sisters took in $754,000 in royalties for the song in 2012.
Despite reporting by some media outlets, the song may not actually be in the public domain. "It does leave open some questions," Brauneis told the Los Angeles Times. "If [the Hill sisters] didn't convey the rights to Summy Co., then is there someone else that might still own them?"
In the meantime, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are working on a class action to recover royalty payments from Warner for themselves and others. They may try to put Warner on the hook for royalties going back to 1935. By some estimates, "Happy Birthday to You" has been the highest earning song in history.
On a personal note, I think the song's awful. I'm no music critic but the thing sounds like a dirge. While liberal copyright laws certainly stifle creative expression and cultural growth (can you imagine if Shakespeare's works were copyrighted and some rent-seeking heir claimed infringement every time someone wrote a story about star-crossed lovers, or how difficult it would be to put together the Bible if, say, the family of every prophet who wrote a Psalm demanded a cut of every book published?) in the case of the "Happy Birthday" song, copyright laws mercifully kept the awful mess largely off the big and small screens. Expect that to change.
I thought there'd be a compilation of movie and TV clips of alternatives to the "Happy Birthday" song on YouTube but the Internet, a bastion of copyright law resistance, I failed. Here's something similar-ish:
Via commenter RTS, here's a compilation of "Happy Birthday" alternatives via Vimeo.