For obvious reasons, “Happy Birthday To You” remains one of the most ubiquitous tunes out there. You hear it weekly at restaurants and, hopefully, directed in your general direction on a yearly basis. Unfortunately, it’s a song one rarely hears on television or on the big screen. One of the more prominent exceptions — and one that paid a handsome price — is Bridget Jones’s Diary. Otherwise, you won’t hear this tune in hardly any commercial aspect because they royalties are too steep. Warner Music Group, which has claimed copyright on the song, has been pulling in about $2 million annually in licensing fees.
Until now, that is. The party is over for copyright claims relating to “Happy Birthday To You,” for a federal judge threw down a summary judgment to strike all existing copyright claims:
Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday afternoon that a copyright filed by the [Clayton F.] Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific arrangements of the music, not the actual song itself.
“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics,” wrote Judge George H. King, “Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”
Warner’s enforcement of the copyright claim was a little bit sketchy. The company originally paid $15 million to purchase Birch Tree Group, which succeeded Summy Co., the owner of the original song copyright. So, Warner recouped their investment many times over even though they didn’t even hold a proper copyright. Nice work if you can get it.
All of this means that television shows and movies are now free to sing “Happy Birthday” as much as they damn well please. Let’s celebrate the proper way, shall we? Here’s the appropriate Bridget Jones scene. “A fight. Come quick! It’s a reeeeeallll fight!”
(Via LA Times)