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World's most popular song is not under copyright, according to lawsuit

Smart Introduction: About the happy birthday song copyright!

The history of the song ‘Happy Birthday’ is as complicated as the journey we now contemplate in our new normal of Covid 19. It’s a simple song we can all recite but is fraught with complications, copyright, and legalities. The story behind ‘Happy Birthday to You’ song. The Guinness Book of World Records ranks the song as the most recognizable songs in English that were translated into more than two dozen languages. Here goes the history: 

The lyrics and the tune of the song were written and composed in the early 1900s by two sisters named Mildred J Hill and Patty Smith Hill. Mildred, who was an educator back when she composed the song for which Patty wrote the lyrics. Mildred then became a composer, pianist and an organist. 

Patty developed the Patty Hill blocks, the building blocks which were used as educational tools. She also was one of the founders of the National Association for Nursery Education. It was later renamed as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). She also worked at Columbia University Teachers College. 

Initially, the tune was composed for a daily classroom greeting, ‘Good Morning to All’ for children in the kindergarten. This later became a happy birthday song which was first published in a book edited by Robert H Coleman in the year 1924.

Lawsuits of ‘Happy Birthday to You’

“Happy Birthday to You” is one of the most popular and recognizable songs in the English language. For many years, the song was believed to be under copyright protection, and anyone using it in a commercial setting was technically required to pay royalties to Warner/Chappell Music, the publishing company that claimed to hold the copyright.

However, in 2016, a U.S. federal judge ruled that Warner/Chappell Music’s claim to the copyright was not valid. The lawsuit, filed by a group of artists and filmmakers, challenged the copyright and argued that the song should be in the public domain. The court agreed, stating that the original copyright, filed in 1935, only covered specific piano arrangements of the music, not the lyrics themselves. As a result, “Happy Birthday to You” is now considered a public domain song, and anyone can use it without fear of infringing on copyright.

This ruling resolved a long-standing legal battle and made “Happy Birthday to You” freely accessible for public use. It’s important to note that copyright laws can vary from country to country, so the public domain status of the song specifically applies to the United States. In other countries, copyright laws may still be in effect, so it’s advisable to check local regulations before using the song commercially.

However, the variations to the birthday lyrics and its authorship remain uncertain.

According to Warner Bros, the copyright was held with the company until 2030 – which may be called the ‘highest’ earning song in history. 

is happy birthday song protected by copyright ?

End of the Copyright

Jennifer Nelson, a filmmaker, had to pay $1,500 in royalties for producing a documentary on the song ‘Good Morning to All.’. She filed a case against the record label giant in June 2013. The case was closely followed by copyright specialists and industry fraternities across the world, given its royalty values and popularity. Many individuals and copyright registration attorneys also felt that the song should be a part of the public domain. 

In 2015, the court ruled that Warner Bros’ copyright claim was invalid. This was done after the lawyers found a lead in a 1922 songbook that included ‘Happy Birthday Song’ with a line stating, ‘Special permission through courtesy of the Clayton F Summy Company’. After lengthy legal negotiations, Warner Bros finally agreed to pay $14 million in a settlement. Thus it ended the claim and the song became public domain and free to use in February 2016. 

Various Allegations

There were many allegations made on the song. According to Kembrew McLeod, the idea of the melody and lyrics might have been plagiarised by the sisters from 19th-century musical pieces. There are people like Robert Brauneis, an American law professor, who disagree with these allegations. 

There were many famous renditions of the song made back then. But the notable ones had a huge significant impact thus leading to various lawsuits. The notable ones are President Kennedy’s 1962 birthday concert where Marilyn Monroe sang Happy Birthday to You. Another notable moment is when the song appeared on the broadcast in 1969. It was sung by the crew orbiting Apollo 9 to NASA director Christopher Kraft. 

Since then, the song has been translated into various languages and has been one of the most loved songs around the world. The song has a unique and profound place in this world.

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