The next time you sing "Happy Birthday," you may want to make sure you aren’t being video recorded, or at least that there aren’t any entertainment lawyers nearby.
That’s because the timeless birthday song, which dates back to 1893, is technically copyrighted -- owned by Warner/Chapell Music.
Fortunately for those of us who may have unwittingly infringed the copyright by crooning out the melody at a friend or family member’s birthday party, a production company has filed a lawsuit demanding that the song finally be placed into the public domain, free from legal and proprietary restrictions.
The suit was filed by Good Morning To You Productions, a corporation that is in the process of filming a movie called “Happy Birthday.” The production company was forced to pay a licensing fee to Warner/Chappell and promise to use the song in the film. Violation of the agreement could force Good Morning To You to pay a staggering $150,000 penalty.
Suit: Copyright expired long ago
“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set was first published,” the suit says, “defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You."
In its suit, the production company points to evidence suggesting that the copyright to the song expired all the way back in 1921. If Warner/Chappell still holds a valid copyright, the suit says, it’s to a specific piano arrangement of the song from 1935. According to the suit, that narrow copyright doesn’t give Warner/Chappell the rights to every version of the song.
The song originated as “Good Morning to All,” which consisted of the same familiar melody that is used today. That melody was copyrighted in 1893, 1896, 1899, and 1907.
In addition to its demand that Happy Birthday to You be placed into the public domain, Good Morning To You is demanding that Warner/Chappell repay over $5 million that it has collected in licensing fees over the years.