Happy Birthday – out of copyright and back onto the screen

It is a song that is sung across the world in almost every language imaginable (even Klingon, if Google is to be believed), but did you know that Happy Birthday is subject to a copyright? The song was composed by two American sisters in 1893, albeit under a different name. It later evolved to become the song that most of us sing today.

In 1988, Warner/Chappell bought the rights to the song. Their ownership meant that they have been able to generate an income of approximately $2million per year since then for its use in films and public places. Unbeknownst to most of us, the effect of this copyright is that film producers have previously had to go out of their way to avoid featuring the song, a situation which has been ridiculed in TV shows such as ‘30 Rock’. Popular restaurant chains have even gone so far as to create their own birthday songs just to avoid the fees. This, however, may be about to change.

Musician, Rupa Marya, and film producer, Robert Siegel, mounted a legal challenge in the US after Warner/Chappell requested payment of $1,500 for their use of the song in a film they were making about it. They argued that as the song was in the public domain it should not be subject to copyright fees. The hearing went before Judge George King who agreed with Marya and Siegel, ruling that the company did not own the rights to the lyrics but rather four specific piano arrangements. Warner/Chappell has said that they are now looking into their options following this ruling.

Despite the ruling, the song is still subject to copyright in the UK but perhaps this recent decision will lead filmmakers in this country to consider their own legal options in the near future?

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