Documentarians sue to prove “Happy Birthday” is public domain

Incredibly, Warner/Chappel music continues to collect royalties on the use of “Happy Birthday,” despite many people pointing out that it should be considered public domain (not to mention common sense screaming the same thing). Even the copyright itself says it’s more than 100 years old. Finally, a new lawsuit is challenging Happy Birthday’s protected status, saying it should’ve been public domain long ago. And the people filing the suit should know, they’re working on a documentary about it.

The proposed class action is brought by a film company that is working on a documentary about the “Happy Birthday” song. During the making, the producers were informed that they would need to pay a $1,500 synchronization license fee to use the song in the documentary. The producers paid for fear of being liable for up to $150,000 in penalties for copyright infringement.

But now, Good Morning to You Productions Corp. has filed a lawsuit on behalf of all those in film, television and elsewhere who are paying for rights to “Happy Birthday.” The plaintiff aims to force Warner/Chappell Music to return millions of dollars collected over the years for what the lawsuit calls “the world’s most popular song.”

When the Hill sisters first composed the song in 1893, it was called “Good Morning to All.” Somewhere along the line the tune evolved into the version that is currently popular. The song has traditionally been regarded as copyrighted because the lyrics appeared in a songbook in 1924 and a piano arrangement was published in 1935. As such, it would neatly fit into changes in copyright law that conferred a lengthy 95 years of protection for works created after 1923. Had the songbook been published any earlier, there wouldn’t be any question  as to whether a license fee was needed when, for example, Marilyn Monroe sang it to John F. Kennedy in 1962.

Now, the documentary film company says it has “irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, [which] shows that the copyright to ‘Happy Birthday,’ 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,’ those rights are limited to the extremely narrow right to reproduce and distribute specific piano arrangements for the song published in 1935.”

As evidence, the lawsuit cites a January 1901 edition of an Indiana school journal that described children singing the words “happy birthday to you.” And then, in what the plaintiffs might hope will become a smoking gun, there’s citation to a copy of a 1911 work published by the Board of Sunday Schools of the Methodist Episcopal Church. [THR]

It’s truly amazing that people have been able to collect licensing fees for “Happy Birthday” all these years. Anyone trying to argue that it isn’t public domain should get laughed out of court. Actually, after they’re done paying off all the people they squeezed money from, they should have to learn the words to every chain restaurant’s crappy happy birthday knock-off song that they had to invent to avoid paying royalties, and sing them all to the plaintiffs every year on their birthdays.