People in the US May No Longer Have to Pay Each Time They Sing “Happy Birthday”

Elpidio V. Peria
9 August 2015


It may be absurd but true, the “Happy Birthday” song is still under copyright in the US, thus, each time people in the US get to sing it, they have to pay royalties to the current rights holders to the song, which according to Glenn Fleishman who wrote about this in technology news site is Warner/Chappell, a part of Warner Music Group, which acquired it from a previous owner in 1985, in the US.

Whether Filipinos get to pay too, if they sing the song in the Philippines, is something that can be checked with the Intellectual Property Office, if Warner Music Group had also registered its rights here in the country.

According to Fleishman, Warner/Chappell has reaped on the order of $2 million per year from the song since it acquired the rights to the song from its previous owner, and if it were to maintain that 1935 registration date, its ownership wouldn’t expire until 2030—137 years after the first publication of the song’s melody.

Fleishman however wrote about a lawsuit filed in 2013 by documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Nelson, who asserted that the copyright to the song asserted by its current owners, Warner/Chappell, expired in the 1920s, if it ever properly existed.

This suit was nearing its conclusion when a last-minute piece of evidence emerged from Warner/Chappell: an excerpt of a 1927 title called The Everyday Song Book produced by the piano-making firm, The Cable Company. The song, numbered 16, is called “Good Morning and Birthday Song” with the main lyrics under the score, and “optional” words below for “Happy Birthday.” The ostensible copyright notice was blurred in the version supplied by the music company.

Nelson’s lawyer noted it was not the first edition, and were able to get a library to dig up the 1922 version. The same version appears there without a legally required statement of copyright.

Fleishman was able to obtain a copy of this 1922 edition from an online bookseller. It’s a fascinating thing to see in print what has been in dispute for so long.

Fleishman also quotes Mark Rifkin of Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, one of Nelson’s lawyers, who said : “The publication in 1922 without a copyright notice forfeits the copyright; it’s just that simple.”

Even if it had had a copyright notice, because it was published in 1922, the work would fall before the 1923 cutoff point at which a variety of absurd revisions and extensions were added to copyright duration. Works published in the U.S. before 1923 are all in the public domain; works published in 1923, if they had a proper notice and were renewed after an initial 28-year term, don’t expire until 2019.

All of these issues will still have to be resolved by a judge hearing the case who may come up with a ruling between the end of August and September.


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