A birthday celebration without a cake and the song, “Happy Birthday to You” may seem to be incomplete. In fact, it is more than the Beethoven sonnet and the Beatles, beloved by children across the world. But do you know this song was earlier copyrighted for almost a century and later became free from legal implications? Yes anyone who uses it in movies or TV programmes or sings at any public places was legally bound to pay a fee.
The copyright feud for this popular, classic song was one of the notable copyright lawsuits in years.
What is 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, who were also educationists.
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”
When the song started becoming famous in 1934, a suit was filed by Jessica, Mildred and Patty’s sister claiming the unauthorised use of the tune, “Good Morning to All” in “Happy Birthday to You.” Copyright protection was then sought for the song in 1935 by Jessica, who was working with a publishing firm named Clayton F. Summy Company.
The Clayton F Summy Company was bought by Birch Tree Ltd (formerly John F Sengstack) which was in turn bought by Warner Chappell. Warner Chappell, the global music publishing company belonging to the Warner Music Group, bought the rights for the “Happy Birthday to You” song for $22 million in 1988 and has since made an estimate of $2m a year licensing the song for movies and TV. This means that anyone who wanted to sing the song in public or use in commercials must pay Warner Bros to get away without legal repercussions.
However, the variations to the birthday lyrics and its authorship still 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.
A case was filed against the record label giant in June 2013 by a filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, who had to pay $1,500 in royalties for producing a documentary on the song “Good Morning to All.” The case was closely followed by copyright specialists and industry fraternities across the world, given its royalty values and popularity. Many individuals and copyright 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 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 putting an end to the claim and the song became public domain and free to use in February 2016.