For decades, the familiar tune of “Happy Birthday to You” was under strict copyright protection. That meant that any commercial use of the song required permission and a fee. This was the case until 2015.
The origins of “Happy Birthday to You”
The melody for “Happy Birthday to You” was composed in the late 19th century by sisters Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill. Originally known as “Good Morning to All,” the song aimed to greet children in a classroom setting.
In 1935 the Clayton F. Summy Company registered the melody and lyrics of “Happy Birthday to You” for copyright. This copyright protection granted them exclusive rights to the song. Technically, this restricted its public use without obtaining a license or paying royalties. As a result, countless public performances and recordings of the song required legal authorization.
Over the years, “Happy Birthday to You” became an iconic cultural staple, sung in homes, schools, restaurants, and even movies. Despite its widespread use, the song’s copyright remained firmly in place.
Ending the Happy Birthday copyright
The extent of the copyright’s reach became a topic of curiosity and controversy. In 2013, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson sought to produce a film about the song’s history but was required to pay substantial licensing fees to include the song. Intrigued by the song’s copyright status, Nelson embarked on a legal battle to challenge its validity and uncover the truth behind this enduring musical monopoly.
In 2015, after years of legal proceedings, a federal judge ruled that the copyright claim to “Happy Birthday to You” was invalid. The court determined that the melody and lyrics of the song had long been part of the public domain. This released the song from its decades-long copyright imprisonment.
According to the Hollywood Reporter (cited below) Warner/Chappell Music, the company that held the copyright to “Happy Birthday to You,” agreed to pay a $14 million settlement in 2016. This settlement came after a class-action lawsuit challenged the validity of the copyright and sought reimbursement for years of licensing fees paid.
Entering the public domain
The resolution of the lawsuit marked a turning point, not only in the financial aspect but also in the recognition that the song rightfully belonged in the public domain. It allowed people worldwide to freely sing and share the timeless birthday anthem without any further encumbrance of licensing fees.
The release of “Happy Birthday to You” from copyright restrictions marked a significant milestone. It ensured that the song could be freely performed, recorded, and shared by people around the world.
Following the court ruling, Warner/Chappell Music faced a wave of legal claims seeking reimbursement for years of licensing fees paid. In 2016, Warner/Chappell Music agreed to settle the class-action lawsuit. They paid a $14 million settlement, finally closing the chapter on the decades-long copyright controversy.