Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear….OK you get where I’m going with this. The song that has been sung at virtually every birthday event in the US for who knows how long is soon to be performed at a federal courthouse in Manhattan where a dispute has arisen over the song rights.
Recently a lawsuit has been filed by a New York filmmaker that wants the song to be deemed public domain in which case the music company claiming the copyright privileges for the song will no longer be able to charge licensing fees for its use.
Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker producing a documentary she intends on calling “Happy Birthday” which is about the infamous ditty has brought the suit because she wants to use it in the upcoming film. In order for Nelson to use the song she was informed that she has to pay approximately $1,500 and sign a licensing agreement with Warner/Chappel, which is the publishing sector of the Warner Music Group.
According to the lawsuit, Ms. Nelson and her company, Good Morning to You Productions, entered the agreement and paid said fee. Nelson said “Before I began my film making career, I never thought the song was owned by anyone. I thought it belonged to everyone.”
According to the suit, in the late 1800s Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, two sisters, wrote a song with the same melody as the “Happy Birthday” song, and named it “Good Morning to All.” In the suit it states the historical evolution of that song into the popular tune we know today ends with the ownership by Warner/Chappell, or so they claim.
In a recent phone interview, Mark C. Rifkin, Ms. Nelson’s attorney said that the “Happy Birthday to you” song Warner/Chappell claims to own is “just an adaptation” of the original and that “it’s a song created by the public, it belongs to the public, and it needs to go back to the public.”
According to the suit Warner/Chappel paid $25 million in 1988 to acquire a company known as Birchtree Ltd. which had music holdings including the birthday tune. It is estimated by Riftkin that Warner/Chappel has earned approximately $2 million per year in license fees since it obtained rights. Accordingly the suit also seeks to have all the earnings from this returned to respective purchasers.
Should the Happy Birthday Song Be Copyrighted?
Interestingly, a professor at the George Washington University Law School Robert Brauneis, who authored the 68-page article titled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song” says that “it is doubtful that ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ the famous offspring of ‘Good Morning to All,’ is really still under copyright.”
“I believe this song is in the public domain and therefore it is not owned by anyone,” says Professor Brauneis. He also said “Happy Birthday to You” was “economically significant” and “still produces millions of dollars of income in a year,” and if the legal challenge were successful it “might be a model for challenges to other songs.”
When I saw this story in a headline I knew that I had to read it. This suit makes me question the ownership of various other songs we all know and love. I sort of hope that Nelson is successful in her challenge. With an iconic song like “Happy Birthday” in question, it seems only fitting that it be owned by all!
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