Legal battle over the most popular song of all time

By Lindsay de Freitas
04 August 2015

We bet you've sung this one before!

It's cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognised song in the English language -- but we might need to be more careful about belting it out.

Happy Birthday To You is sung the world over, but it's actually protected by copyright.

However, New York film-maker Jennifer Nelson is challenging this and believes that the iconic song should belong to the public.

"Before I began my film-making career, I never thought the song was owned by anyone," owner of Good Morning to You productions, Jennifer wrote in an email to the New York Times. "I thought it belonged to everyone.”

Earlier this year her company, Good Morning to You productions, which is making a documentary about the history of the song decided to file a lawsuit requesting that the song be declared public domain, and that royalties collected over the years be returned.

“More than 120 years after the melody to which the simple lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set were first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, and with that copyright the exclusive right to authorize the song’s reproduction, distribution, and public performances pursuant to federal law,” reads the lawsuit brought by Jennifer’s company.

The smoking gun in the case against Warner/Chappell Music is a songbook published in 1922 which Jennifer Nelson’s lawyers found in a library at the University of Pittsburgh in the USA. The book features an earlier version of the song’s lyrics and musical arrangement with no copyright credit.

Warner/Chappell Music, however, deny the books authenticity and claim the rights were lawfully purchased and according to their contract, copyright is only due to expire in 2030.

Although we are all technically allowed to sing Happy Birthday to relatives and friends in our private capacity, any public rendering of the song, without paying royalties, is illegal. Interestingly, those who want to sing it publicly, such as restaurant staff singing to a customer, technically have to pay to use the song.

The judge is yet to rule on this interesting case but one thing’s for sure: whether it remains protected by copyright or becomes public domain – you haven’t heard the last of this birthday earworm.


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