It’s one of the most notorious stories in copyright history, up there with Disney’s refusal to let Mickey Mouse lapse. But “Happy Birthday to You” may finally be available to everyone as a part of the public domain.
Originally written back in 1893, the song has somehow remained under copyright all the way up to this week. Most recently, the rights have been claimed by music publishing giant Warner/Chappell, who got hold of the song after acquiring its previous owner back in 1998. Owing to this claim, despite being one of the most sung songs in the world, public performances were technically subject to royalty payments, a lucrative business that earned Warner/Chappell possibly as much as $2 million a year.
But recently, questions had begun to emerge regarding the song’s history, thanks in part to filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who has been working on a documentary about the well-known tune. According to Variety, she was one of the plaintiffs who challenged Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim in court.
Yesterday, their suit proved fruitful—or at least as fruitful as finally making something free to use can be. A federal judge ruled that, indeed, the timeline of ownership of the song doesn’t hold up and, therefore, Warner/Chappell “does not own a valid copyright.”
In victory, attorney Mark Rifkin stated, “There is no one, really, who can claim an ownership to the song.” A Warner/Chappell spokesman had a different take, saying in a statement, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
The immediate ramifications: You no longer have to worry about some Warner/Chappell goon shaking you down at your son’s next birthday party. More noticeably, you’ll probably hear the song used in places like movies and chain restaurants instead of being stuck hearing some unbearable knockoff. It’s sure to be a huge weight off the shoulders of Chuck E. Cheese and the rest of his anthropomorphic gang.
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