Copyrighted or in public domain? Happy Birthday litigation

Such a simple tune.

And such complex litigation.

It’s hard to believe that a song as abbreviated and quickly learned — and widely known in countries across the globe for scores of years — as Happy Birthday to You can inspire such a detailed rehashing of history and competing versions of reality.

The tune is innocuous, but the attendant litigation is certainly heated.

And that is understandable, given the copyright interest claimed in Happy Birthday and the resulting collection of royalties that comes from licensing fees paid by users.

Happy Birthday began its first-ever foray into controversy a couple years back, when a filmmaker making a documentary about the song unexpectedly received a $1,500 bill from Warner/Chappell ( a subsidiary of Warner Music Group), with Warner demanding payment as the alleged copyright owner of the song.

Not true, countered the filmmaker, who, along with other plaintiffs, filed a class action lawsuit contending that the world-famous birthday ode is not owned by anybody. The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges, conversely, that the song has been in the public domain since 1922.

That claim — that no copyright has attached to Happy Birthday for more than 90 years — is starkly contrastive to what Warner alleges, namely, that it lawfully secured rights to the song after its purchase of a company in 1988. Prior to that, the company maintains, there was a clear chain of ownership.

The plaintiffs dispute that, stating that Warner handed them a “proverbial smoking gun” during discovery that absolutely refutes its contention. The plaintiffs are referring to what they say is a 1927 publication containing the song and lyrics that makes no reference or claim to any copyright.

Happy Birthday was long ago “given to the nation,” says a legal representative for the plaintiffs.

A federal judge will ultimately determine whether that is the case.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “‘Happy Birthday’ belongs to all, filmmaker says,” Matt Reynolds, July 29, 2015

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