'Happy Birthday' Is Now Free

Judge rules that Warner never really had the copyright
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 23, 2015 1:25 AM CDT
'Happy Birthday' Is Now Free
Happy birthday to all of us—the song's in the public domain now.   (Shutterstock)

You can now sing "Happy Birthday" anywhere you like without fear of copyright lawyers pouncing. A federal judge has ruled that Warner/Chappell, which has been making around $2 million a year from "Happy Birthday to You," doesn't have the rights to the song and never did, reports the Los Angeles Times. The judge ruled that a copyright filed in 1935 and acquired by Warner in 1988 only covered specific piano arrangements of the tune and not the lyrics, the BBC reports. The song started out as "Good Morning to All," written by a Kentucky schoolteacher and her sister in the 1890s, and the judge found that there was no evidence that the sisters had even written the better-known lyrics, Ars Technica reports.

Warner wasn't in the habit of sending lawyers to raid birthday parties, but it did expect to get paid whenever the song was used in ads, movies, or any other profit-making enterprise. Plaintiffs in the long-running lawsuit included the makers of a documentary about the song and singer Rupa Marya, who had to pay $455 for including it on a live album. "I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it's supposed to do—protect the creations of people who make stuff so that we can continue to make more stuff," she tells the AP. Lawyers say they now plan to make the suit a class-action one to force Warner to pay back some of the royalties, the Times reports. (More copyright stories.)

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