In news you might have missed last week, it is now actually legal to sing “Happy Birthday to You,” thanks to a copyright law ruling by a federal judge.
Truly, the ruling on the song had no effect on families, workplace gatherings or other groups joining in a chorus of one of the most recognizable and popular tunes in the English language.
“Happy birthday to you/happy birthday to you. …”
The presumed owner of the song, Warner/Chappell Music, was never claiming a piece of every last rendition, it was trying to maintain rights with the entertainment industry, demanding payment if, for instance, “Happy Birthday” were to be inserted in a movie scene.
Now filmmakers, TV studios and others who have paid an estimated $2 million annually in licensing fees to use the song commercially, even if they’re just depicting people at a birthday party singing it, can use the song freely because it is part of the public domain.
Independent filmmakers initiated the lawsuit that led to the decision, arguing that the publishing company didn’t hold a valid copyright to the song’s simple lyrics (the copyright over the melody, which was written in 1893, expired in 1949). Federal Judge George H. King in California agreed, holding that the copyright that Warner/Chappell purchased in 1988 covered a piano arrangement of the song, not the lyrics.
The story behind “Happy Birthday” is that two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, composed the music for the song we know as “Happy Birthday” sometime before 1893, according to an article by Harvard law professor Noah Feldman, writing for Bloomberg View. They also wrote words: “Good morning to all/Good morning to all/Good morning dear children/Good morning to all.”
The Hill sisters wrote the song for use in kindergarten and transferred their rights in 1893 to a publisher of a book called “Song Stories for the Kindergarten.” Warner/Chappell Music had said the Hill sisters’ heirs assigned the rights in the lyrics to “Happy Birthday” to the publisher, who then copyrighted the lyrics in 1935. On this theory, the sisters had a common law right in the unregistered copyright to the words. A 1935 registration date would put the lyrics still under copyright today.
The court concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence for a reasonable person to think that the Hills had ever transferred copyright in the lyrics.
In any case, we are all now free and clear to belt out rousing renditions of “Happy Birthday,” without concern of running afoul of copyright law. Who knew?
A READER MENTIONED recently seeing a woolly bear caterpillar that was more than two-thirds black and less than a third rusty orange.
For those who subscribe to this sort of the weather lore, a mostly black woolly bear is a harbinger of a longer, colder winter.
We would welcome any reported sightings that contradict — or confirm — the above report.