It’s been labeled by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognised song in the English language, but Happy Birthday is about as protected by red tape as a song can get. Under copyright laws, anyone who wises to reproduce the song will have to pay a fee or risk severe legal ramifications but that all might be about to change following a class action against the copyright holders Warner/Chappell Music.
Composed in 1893, by sisters Patty Smith Hill and Mildred Hill, the song has a fairly interesting story behind it, but so strict are the copyright restrictions that not even a documentary currently being created around the songs origins can use it for free. Producers of the documentary were forced to pay $1,500 to use the track, or else face a $150,000 lawsuit. Needless to say, they paid the usage fee. However, Good Morning to You Productions Corp has filed a lawsuit on behalf of the producers seeking for the track to not only be put into the public domain, but also to have the millions of dollars collected from fees and fines returned.
It wasn’t until 1935 that the track was published as sheet music, implementing the copyright, but the lawsuit states that the public communication of the song – which was originally titled Good Morning, with different lyrics – began as early as 1901, with an Indiana school journal explaining children sang the words “happy birthday to you” to the tune of the original composition.
The lawsuit will aim to prevent Warner/Chappell Music from restricting the use of the song by flexing their legal ownership of the track. This will potentially be achieved by the fact that the company can no longer rely on laws from the 19th or 20th century, which have since expired, or the currently valid copyright of the sheet music because, at the time they were created, the works at that stage were not “original works of authorship, except to the extent of the piano arrangements themselves”.
However, if the lawsuit fails to hold water in court, the track will remain untouchable without a fee until 2030.