A federal judge on Tuesday invalidated the decades-old copyright to the song Happy Birthday To You, making it part of the public domain. The ruling by U.S. District Judge George H. King found that the original copyright, filed in 1935, only protected the rights to specific arrangements of the music, not the song itself.
Warner/Chappell Music held the copyright to the song after paying $15 million for it from the Birch Tree Group, the successor of the original copyright holder. The court found that the lyrics to Happy Birthday To You were never part of the original copyright claim and the authors of the song, the Hill sisters, never asserted a claim to the lyrics, just the melody. While the song is obviously sung around the world, technically, because it was still under copyright, it was not free to use in many commercial situations and Warner is estimated to have made $2 million each year licensing the song, according to the Los Angeles Times. Here’s more from the Times:
Up until now, Warner has charged anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” -- with the lyrics -- as part of a profit-making enterprise. Most often, this occurred with stage productions, on television, in movies or in greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business, say a restaurant owner giving out free birthday cake to patrons, would technically have to pay to use the song. The complex saga of this six-note ditty has spanned more than 120 years, withstanding two world wars and several eras of copyright law. The song has seen the rise and fall of vinyl records, cassette tapes, CDs and now, the era of digital streaming music.