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Property of the Nation: Happy Birthday Song is Now In The Public Domain

On September 22nd, the most well-known song in the English language was freed for use by all. Commercial enterprises will no longer be required to pay licensing fees or risk fines for violating the copyright claim of music publisher Warner/Chappell.  As of this writing, it’s unknown if Warner will continue to fight the case filed two years ago. Stay tuned.

WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston has this report on a U.S. District Court decision unifying the melody and lyrics of "Happy Birthday To You." The judge invalidated Warner/Chappell's copyright claim, shifting the song to the public domain.

Radio script:

Meridee Duddleston: There’s a reason the servers in popular chain restaurants clap their hands and sing a  happy birthday ditty that’s not what we hear at home. And the late Mr. Rogers? Here’s his version of the Happy Birthday song:

MUSIC: Mr. Rodgers singing

MD: What’s not known to many is that in the past, film and television producers and professional musicians have had to pony up licensing fees to use the real one: the Happy Birthday song we all know so well. 

A federal judge in Los Angeles threw a bucket of water on the candles burning brightly for music publisher and copyright owner Warner/Chappell. The decision comes from a legal challenge brought by a film production company working on a documentary about the origin of “Happy Birthday.”  Like others, it paid Warner - the presumed copyright owner - a fee to use the song. 

The case turned on the lyrics, not the melody, which the filmmaker and Warner agreed had fallen in the public domain and so not protected by copyright law. The judge delved into the background of an old children’s song with different lyrics called “Good Morning to All.” 

The two sisters who wrote it, assigned their rights to a publisher, who, in turn, included it in a songbook in the late 1800s. But in a 43-page opinion, Judge George King found it’s not clear the sisters ever claimed ownership of the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, which didn’t appear in print until almost two decades later. 

That’s bad news for Warner/Chappell. Will it pursue its legal options, including a request to appeal? It won’t take another birthday to find out. The Los Angeles Times reported last weekthat Warner is assessing its options.

A video all about the Happy Birthday song: