Court Holds ‘Happy Birthday to You’ Song Copyright Invalid


Ever wonder why the staff doesn’t just sing “Happy Birthday to You” when you go to your local restaurant chain for a free birthday steak? For more than 80 years, the Happy Birthday song’s lyrics were copyright protected, and the holder, music publisher Warner/Chappell, charged users a licensing fee—collecting more than $2 million a year. A judge ruled on September 22, however, that the Happy Birthday song copyright was not valid, and the song essentially entered public domain.

For years, Warner held the copyright to a very specific musical arrangement to the Happy Birthday song and its lyrics, purportedly penned by a Kentucky schoolteacher and her older sister and originally titled “Good Morning to All.” In 1893, a company published the musical work, and in 1935, it registered a version of the Happy Birthday song. Warner acquired the contested Happy Birthday song copyright in 1988. The Los Angeles federal judge, however, ruled that it was not clear whether the two sisters had actually written the song’s lyrics, and regardless, they had never asserted a copyright claim for the Happy Birthday song lyrics, just the melody.

The ruling means that as of now no one has to pay for the Happy Birthday song’s use. Previously, Warner charged entities licensing fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars for the Happy Birthday song use. Further, the ruling means that Warner will have to repay licensing fees it collected stretching back to 1935.

While the Happy Birthday song is now likely free for use by the public, that fact does not necessarily mean that the song has entered public domain. Someone wrote the Happy Birthday song’s lyrics, and though it would be a monumental undertaking, someone could still theoretically gather enough proof together to now assert a new copyright claim over the lyrics. Therefore, the song is more like a copyright “orphan” than a work in the public domain.


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