For many, many years – over a hundred years, perhaps – a song sung millions of times on birthdays around this country is “Happy Birthday to You”. Just last week, the copyright for this song came under fire in federal court.
Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed a lawsuit to cancel the copyright of the noted birthday song in a Manhattan federal court last week seeking to place the song in the public domain and also seeking to force the company that holds the copyright, Warner/Chappell Music, to pay back licensing fees for the past four years.
Nelson was working on a documentary of the origins of the birthday song, when she was charged a $1,500 licensing fee by Warner/Chappell for including the song in her documentary.
Surprised not only by the fee, but that the song was actually copyrighted, Nelson began researching the origins of the song. In her research, Nelson discovered the song was actually written by a pair of sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, in 1893 for kindergarteners, although it was then entitled, “Good Morning to You”. According to Nelson, the song slowly changed over time into the song we all know today – “Happy Birthday to You”.
“Happy Birthday to You” was sung throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, but the piano version used today was not copyrighted until 1935. Birchtree Ltd. previously held the copyright to the song, but Warner/Chappell purchased the company in 1988 and, thus, obtained the copyright to the song. Warner/Chappell is a subsidiary of Warner Music Group.
Warner/Chappell does agree the song has been in use for over one hundred years, but claims the current copyright is just for the piano arrangement composed in 1935, and also claims its copyright on the song is valid until 2030 since, according to copyright laws in the 1930’s, copyrights were valid for ninety-five years.
Nelson, however, disagrees with Warner/Chappell alleging their version of the birthday song is no different from the earlier version and therefore the copyright would have expired by now.
Nelson is seeking a class-action status for her lawsuit and estimates that Warner/Chappell has collected up to $2 million per year in licensing fees for “Happy Birthday to You”. The plaintiff also wants the return of the licensing rights Warner/Chappell has collected, rights that could be worth a potential $50 million.