Happy birthday to everyone: court overturns copyright to beloved song

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The world’s most famous celebration song has been raking in about 2 million dollars a year for a publishing company. But a US federal court ruled Tuesday that the lyrics were never copyrighted, meaning that Happy Birthday belongs to the public domain.

Right now someone on the planet is singing the Happy Birthday song.

The world’s favorite serenade is a staple at birthday parties in dozens of languages around the globe, from English, French and German to Finnish, Arabic and Japanese. It’s even been translated into the fictional Star Trek language Klingon.

As ubiquitous as the song may be, it has been claimed as private property, owned by Los Angeles-based Warner Music Group, since 1988.

But a US federal court in Los Angeles on Tuesday rejected the company’s copyright claims, ruling that it had never owned the lyrics. It found in favour of a trio of US artists who sued in 2013, arguing that the song belongs to the world.

Warner/Chappell pulled in an estimated 2 million dollars a year from licences, making it one of the most lucrative songs ever published.

Filmamkers, toymakers, ring-tone programmers, restaurant chains and even the Girl Scouts have been asked to pay licence fees from 500 dollars to tens of thousands of dollars for using the song. Many artists in film, theatre and music avoid the song over budget concerns.

“In the film industry, it’s always been a bit of a joke,” filmmaker Jennifer Nelson told dpa. “Your boss is always telling you, ‘don’t film the Happy Birthday song,’ because you have to pay for it!”

The New York-based director was working on a documentary about the origins of Happy Birthday to You – and had paid 1,500 dollars for a licence to use the song in it – when she discovered a brief by legal scholar Robert Brauneis arguing that the copyright was invalid.

In 2013, she decided to take the theory to court.

She was joined in the suit by two other artists: a musician who had to license Happy Birthday to You when she sang it on a live album, and a director who was hit with a surprise 3,000-dollar bill after he used the song in a film.

“It’s such a huge part of our lives,” Nelson said. “This notion that you have to pay for it, that somebody owns it, just doesn’t feel right.”

Their original case before a federal court in Los Angeles argued that a 1963 renewal of the 1935 copyright was invalid.

Then last month, they discovered what Nelson called a “smoking gun” – a 1922 songbook that published the song without copyright, which under US law would invalidate any later claim.

US district judge George King ruled that the original copyright held by Clayton F Summy Co covered only the melody, but not the lyrics.

Warner did not respond to a request for comment, but in the past, the company has told US media the copyright, which it acquired decades ago, was valid.

Happy Birthday to You’s origins go back more than a century, to the German-inspired kindergarten movement that upended children’s education in the US in the second half of the 19th century.

In 1893, Kentucky composer Mildred Hill and her kindergarten teacher sister Patty composed the song, originally entitled Good Morning To You, as an experimental teaching tool – a simple tune children could memorize and repeat at the start of each school day.

The six-word song lent itself easily to adaptation, and Hill’s classes would sing different lyrics to celebrate vacations and birthdays, according to research by Brauneis.

It made the leap to popular culture at a Louisville, Kentucky, birthday party when Patty Hill had guests serenade first-generation German-American Lisette Hast with the lyrics, according to the official history of The Little Loomhouse, where the party took place.

Within decades, the song was a staple of American culture. It was America’s first singing telegram, and the first song sung in space. Missionaries from Kentucky brought it first to Europe, then around the globe, according to Nelson’s research.

“It’s celebrated in cultures all around the world, and it belongs to the people,” said Nelson. “It’s the people’s song.”

Publicity surrounding the lawsuit has meant that now, it’s Nelson’s song too. She showed up in a hotel recently to find a happy birthday cake waiting for her in her room – even though it wasn’t her birthday.

“I’m the birthday girl now,” she said. “I’ll take it.”

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