When the dessert was brought out with a burning candle friends and family instinctively went into a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday to You.
That may sound unremarkable, but the fact is the song that is so familiar to most of us has been off the menu at restaurants and other public businesses for many years. And that’s because the public performance of the simple tune required the payment of a royalty to the supposed copyright owner.
Some restaurant server crews went as far as making up their own original birthday songs with which to serenade their celebrating customers, just to avoid the legal ramifications associated with singing “Happy Birthday to You.”
It’s had to believe that a song that millions of people have sung at their kids’ birthday parties for as long as I can remember, without giving a second thought about financially compensating someone for that privilege, was subject to copyright law. I even wash my hands to two verses of it, as is recommended by health officials.
But rejoice! Happy Birthday to You is now free.
A federal judge ruled in September that the long-claimed copyright on the most popular tune in the English language is not valid.
According to The New York Times, “The decision, by Judge George H. King of United States District Court in Los Angeles, is a blow to the music publisher Warner/Chappell and its parent company, the Warner Music Group, which have controlled the song since 1988 and reportedly still collect some $2 million annually in licensing fees for it.
“If the judge’s ruling stands, Happy Birthday to You would become part of the public domain. “Since no one else has ever claimed to own the copyright, we believe that as a practical matter, this means the song is public property,” said Mark C. Rifkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.”
A 1922 songbook containing Good Morning and Birthday Song, with the birthday lyrics in the third verse was among the most compelling evidence reportedly presented to the court. The song’s melody was first published in 1893 as “Good Morning to All,” written by Mildred Hill and her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher in Kentucky.
As noted in this blog before, a U.S. copyright lasts for the life of the author plus70 years. But that can be extended in certain case if properly done. In this case the court ruled that didn’t happen.
If this ruling holds up on appeal it could be a nice birthday present to everyone.