“Happy birthday to you…” It’s a song with five unique words besides the name of the recipient, and everyone’s sung it at every birthday party for as long as anyone can remember. Surely, you could never get in trouble for singing it, right? There can’t even be enough to it to copyright it, right?
“Happy Birthday to You” is not as old as you might think, at least officially. It’s registered under a copyright from 1935 that was eventually bought by Warner/Chappell Music in 1988. In the United States, most creative works written after 1923 are still copyrighted, and this is one of them.
United States copyright law is pretty screwed up. I don’t have time to get into it now, but suffice it to say that things stay copyrighted for far longer than most people think they should be, and enforcement (at least when they want to make an example of someone) is far harsher than most people think it should be. Warner/Chappell started enforcing its copyright on “Happy Birthday” when it bought it in 1988. Under the law, any public performance is illegal unless Warner/Chappell allows it (which costs you money). That’s why whenever you go out to eat for your birthday, the restaurant will make up a ridiculous song of its own instead of singing the classic song like normal people.
The story is a bit complicated. It turns out that the tune of “Happy Birthday” was already public domain. It was published back in 1893 with different lyrics under the title “Good Morning to You”. So if you play an instrumental version, you’re in the clear. Oddly, however, the “Happy birthday” lyrics, which were copyrighted in 1935, appear to also be old enough to be public domain. They were first referenced in 1901 and first seen in print in 1911. That would suggest the copyright hasn’t been valid for years.
The judge didn’t rule on these grounds per se. And unlike trademarks, which can lose their legal weight if they become associated with the generic product in the public eye, copyrights cannot be voided in that way. (One wonders if they should. “Happy Birthday” would probably be the only song that applies to.) Instead, the judge ruled that Warner/Chappell only holds the rights to certain piano arrangements of “Happy Birthday”, not the lyrics themselves.
It remains to be seen whether Warner/Chappell will appeal the ruling, which they well might. After all, they’re staring down the barrel of a class-action suit from everyone they’ve forced to pay for the use of the song over the years. But still, we can take comfort in the fact that, at least for now, the world has been made a little more sensible.