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Singing Happy Birthday Could Be a Copyright Violation

Happy Birthday Copyright

Happy Birthday Copyrighted

Did you know that putting your child’s Happy Birthday candle blowing performance onto YouTube is a copyright violation?  Well, that is if you believe Warner/Chapell Music, the claimed copyright holder for this timeless song.  It does seem a bit preposterous that a song which is over 120 years old is still protected but as it stands, any person using the song without permission is subject to statutory damages. The melody for Happy Birthday was first introduced back in 1893 but at that time was called, Good Morning to All and was copyrighted in 1893, 1896, 1899, and 1907. Warner/Chappel have been collecting royalties for decades on the assumption that they are entitled as the copyright owners. Warner/Chappell Music is the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group. It claims on its website to own the copyright to more than 1 million songs.

Finally, the validity of this copyright has been challenged by Good Morning to You Productions, a movie production company filming a new movie titled  . . . wait for it . . . . . Happy Birthday.  The company is being forced by Warner/Chappell to pay a licensing fee so they can use the song in the movie.  Instead, the company filed suit and hopes to have the song moved into the public domain.

The suit claims that the song was written by Mildred and Patty Hill and sold to Clayton Summy in 1893 for 10% of the retail sales of the sheet music. A company that Summy founded was eventually purchased by Warner Music Group in 1998 (CNN Money). According to Good Morning to You Productions, the copyright for Happy Birthday expired back in 1921 and that the copyright that Warner/Chappell holds is only for a specific piano arrangement from 1935 and not to every version of the song.

“More than 120 years after the melody, to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set, was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You.” (ConsumerAffairs.com)

While singing the song at home is exempt from fees, singing at a restaurant might be considered a public performance and therefore, not exempt. I am sure people are wondering how this could have been happening for so long without hearing about it.  Its simple; nobody had thought to challenge the copyright until now. Not only is the suit attempting to bring the song free to the public, but also asks that Warner/Chappell pay back 5 million in licensing fees. This case will take quite a while to resolve but I’ll keep you updated with the results.

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About the author

Steve Schlackman

As a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing, Steve has a unique perspective on art and law. Should you have any questions on Intellectual Property contact him at [email protected] His photography can be seen online at Fotofilosophy.com or on display at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in New York City.

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