Happy Birthday Nonsense is Challenged by Filmmakers (Finally)

by Philippe-Aubert Messier

Have you ever had to license the Happy Birthday song for one of your projects?

If you have, you were probably told by someone like me that although everything indicates that this song is in the public domain, you still have to pony up a considerable amount of cash to use it. Warner Chappell publishing have long been enforcing their muddy claim on the song (despite everyone in the biz saying it’s bollocks) and who wants to get in a fight with Warner four days before going to air? By scaring off every producer on the planet, Warner has been able to hold on to this heirloom piece of copyright, and collect chunky income for it, year after year after year.

Today I had to explain this senseless rationale (again) and decided to see if there were any new developments in the case. I was happy to find out that some people have had enough of this nonsense. In a rather ballsy move, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson and her production company, Good Morning to You Productions, decided to sue Warner for misappropriating heaps of copyright revenue over several decades. They’re even shooting a documentary on this epic copyright drama.

Here’s an excerpt from the plaintiff’s suit:

“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, and with that copyright the exclusive right to authorize the song’s reproduction, distribution, and public performances pursuant to federal copyright law. Defendant Warner/Chappell either has silenced those wishing to record or perform Happy Birthday to You or has extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge its ownership claims.

Irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, shows that the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, if there ever was a valid copyright to any part of the song expired no later than 1921 and that if defendant Warner/Chappell owns any rights to Happy Birthday to You, those rights are limited to the extremely narrow right to reproduce and distribute specific piano arrangements for the song published in 1935. Significantly, no court has ever adjudicated the validity or scope of the defendant’s claimed interest in Happy Birthday to You, nor in the song’s melody or lyrics, which are themselves independent works.”

A jury is set to issue a decision in November of this year. This is probably the largest music copyright case in US history and will surely make for a great film. Stay tuned for the latest developments in this case.

Lawsuit Filed To Prove Happy Birthday Is In The Public Domain; Demands Warner Pay Back Millions Of License Fees [Mike Masnick/Techdirt]