Lawsuit Attempts to Drag “Happy Birthday” Kicking and Screaming Into Public Domain
That song it totally doesn't seem like anyone should have a copyright on? Turns out, the company claiming to hold that copyright might not.
For decades, the charming ditty “Happy Birthday” — a fixture of birthday parties from Chuck E. Cheese to the local tavern — has existed under a dubious copyright by Warner Music, bringing in huge licensing fees for the company every year. Now, though, a documentary production company working on a film about “Happy Birthday” is suing Warner, alleging that the song is part of the public domain and the company’s claims to its copyright are invalid. If this works out, it could spell the end of characters on TV shows awkwardly doing everything but the one thing that is invariably done at every birthday party ever — sing “Happy Birthday.”
The suit, brought by Good Morning To You Productions, offers a ludicrously detailed take on the complicated history of “Happy Birthday,” as well as the song that it evolved from, a mostly forgotten tune called “Good Morning to All.” I’m no lawyer, but even a cursory glance at the filing demonstrates that the folks behind it have done their homework, which is unsurprising considering they’re making a documentary about the matter and all.
The suit doesn’t stop at calling Warner’s copyright into question, though — it also looks to claw back some of the money filmmakers and other licensees have paid Warner over the years. That’s because if the allegations are found to be true, it means that the company has been engaging in massive copyright fraud for years upon years.
Now that a suit has been filed, the ball is in Warner’s court, and we can expect to see them defend their claim to the song vigorously. After all, the tune makes the company millions of dollars in licensing fees every year, and all they have to do is keep a few lawyers on retainer to legally tear apart anyone who questions their copyright on the work — in other words, for situations exactly like this. You can’t really blame them, though — after all, if I was making fat stacks of cash every year for doing absolutely nothing, I’d probably come to see it as a God-given right to be defended to the death, too.