‘Happy birthday’ song may not be protected by copyright
Written by Ellis Sweetenham on 28 July 2015« Return to Reading Room
Following a lawsuit issued in California, it has become clear that the ‘Happy birthday to you’ song is not under copyright protection as previously thought.
There is a reason why the song is not heard in many films or television series, as it was thought to be protected under copyright with the rights going to Warner Chappell, a publishing company. Warner Chappell have substantially capitalised on these rights by enforcing the royalties and collecting approximately $2million a year.
However, following a demand to pay $1500 for the use of the song in a documentary on the history of the song, the filmmakers involved made a claim that the song was not covered by copyright as previously thought. Through their research for the documentary, they found a songbook from 1927, which contains the song, but with no copyright notice that predates any copyright owned by Warner Chappell. Therefore they feel the only conclusion to reach is that the copyright protection of the song expired a number of years ago meaning they and others in the same situation who they also represent in the lawsuit, did not have to pay royalties for the use of ‘Happy birthday’.
They believe that the songbook represents the notion that as there was no copyright notice attached the song, it falls into the public domain, leaving the only copyright protection Warner Chappell possesses to be any alteration they made to the original.
However, Warner Chappell still state that they own copyright protection stemming from a1935 claim from the Summy Company whose protection was passed to Warner Chappell in 1988. They believe that the copyright protection will last until 2030 in the US but does expires in the EU in 2016 where it will be put into the public domain where it is free to use by all.
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