The song we sing the most finally belongs to us all


Can it really be a happy birthday if you have to pay money to sing the song?

A years-long court fight over whether "Happy Birthday" is covered by a copyright finally ended on Monday when a judge signed the paperwork that formally puts the song in the public domain, NBC Los Angeles reports.

U.S. District Judge George King rejected the copyright claim of Warner/Chappell Music, the station says, leading Daniel Schacht, one of the lawyers on the winning side to say:

"Everyone who has a birthday can celebrate. Strong copyright protection is important for artists and content creators, but it must have limits. This landmark ruling recognizes the value of the public domain."

Where did the song come from?

"Happy Birthday" was written in 1893 by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, who were both schoolteachers in Louisville, Kentucky.

A music publisher called Summy Co. supposedly paid the Hill sisters for the rights to the song in 1935 ... and Summy was acquired by Warner/Chappell in 1988. But Law360 says Judge King in his ruling last fall wrote there was no proof that Summy had purchased the lyrics – only the melody, which has long since passed into the public domain.

Why didn't this happen sooner?

According to the University of California Alumni magazine, Warner/Chappell has been collecting about $2 million a year in licensing fees.

There's never really been any charge for singing "Happy Birthday" in your own home. But the California article says Warner/Chappell has been charging musicians hundreds of dollars to put the song on a record and the cost to use it in a big budget Hollywood movie would run into six figures.

Anyone challenging the copyright faced a legal fight and would have to cover the bills for Warner's high-priced attorneys if they lost.

But finally Rupa Marya, the leader of the musical group Rupa and The April Fishes (she's also a doctor and a professor at UC San Francisco) balked at having to pay $455 to include an audience rendition of "Happy Birthday" on a live album.

The Cal alumni mag says Marya joined with a New York documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, in taking the lead on a class action lawsuit.

The judge first ruled last September. On Monday he approved a settlement agreement under which Warner/Chappell agrees to return $14 million it collected in licensing fees for "Happy Birthday."

Actually, Fortune says we really should expect to hear "Happy Birthday" more often – especially on television. The haggling over attorney fees should end by July 12, the magazine says, and that's when the song fully enters the public domain.

And it may not stop with "Happy Birthday."

The New York Times reports lawyers are making public domain cases for a couple of other anthems associated with American freedom: "We Shall Overcome" and the Woody Guthrie classic "This Land Is Your Land."

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