As some of you may have noticed, it is incredibly rare to hear the song “Happy Birthday to You” if you are out at an establishment and choose to torture your dining companions by informing the servers that it’s their birthday. Usually, you get some kind of other birthday-related song that is basically always terrible but still easier to sing than the actual “Happy Birthday to You.” This is because that Warner/Chappell publishing has been RELENTLESS about protecting licensing the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” and harshly fines and penalizes anyone found to be using them without permission. And no wonder, when it’s estimated that royalties from the song bring them somewhere around $2 million a year. However, the validity of the copyright for “Happy Birthday” has long been considered tenuous at best. Warner/Chappell’s source for claiming copyright is a 1935 song collection. The problem is that both the tune had been floating around long before that as “Good Morning to You”, and there’s long been suspicion that the lyrics were originally published prior to 1923, the cut-off year for works still eligible for copyright protection, but so far no one has managed to track down an earlier source with the lyrics. It’s kind of an interesting story, interesting enough that some filmmakers are making a documentary about the history of the song, and have brought a class action suit against Warner/Chappell stating that they have no right to collect royalties for “Happy Birthday” or pursue legal judgement against anyone who uses it.
While doing discovery for the case, though, the attorneys for the documentary found a copy of The Everyday Song Book published in 1927 that was the 15th edition of the book and which contained the song “Happy Birthday to You.” Lawyers managed to track down an earlier edition, published in 1922, that includes the song, but also was published without a copyright notice at all. By the copyright laws at the time, which required a copyright notice with publication, this means that since that collection was published “Happy Birthday to You” has NEVER been under copyright protection.
Warner/Chappell is still claiming that the use wasn’t properly authorized and therefore should not be considered a valid publication, but since they had claimed that the song was never published in any form prior to 1935, this puts a big hole in their case. I am very interested to see where this goes, and in the documentary that’s being made about it, and hopefully we can all one day sing “Happy Birthday to You” in private AND public establishments with no fear of fees or fines.
At which point we will all realize that it is a song distinctly unsuited to a population with no proper vocal training, but that’s a different rant.