Warner Music could also owe up to $5 million in royalties

By Alex Heigl
Updated September 23, 2015 04:00 PM
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Credit: Joe Polillio/Getty

A debate that raged over one of the most ubiquitous and innocuous songs in the world was finally settled Tuesday, as U.S. District Judge George King ruled that “Happy Birthday” is now in the public domain.

The 120-year-old song’s copyright has been held since 1988 by Warner Music, which charges between $1,500 to $50,000 to use the song in media. Warner, for its part, has said it doesn’t attempt to collect royalties from every use of the song, but only from for-profit or commercial use.

King’s ruling, however, suggested that the song’s original copyright, purchased from the Clayton F. Summy Co., only applied to specific piano arrangements of the song, and not its lyrics. The song’s melody, interestingly enough, was already in the public domain, having been adopted from a children’s song called “Good Morning for All.” (And since you cannot copyright a chord progression in a song, if you’re keeping track at home, yes, that means Warner Music’s copyright essentially boiled down to the song’s lyrics, comprised of the following words, “happy,” “birthday,” “to,” “you” and “dear.”)

One of the co-plaintiffs, Ruypa Marya of the music group Ruypa & The April Fishes – who recently owed Warner $455 because a live album of hers featured an incidental version of the song sung by the audience – told the Associated Press, “I hope we can start reimagining copyright law to do what it’s supposed to do – protect the creations of people who make stuff so that we can continue to make more stuff.”

The other plaintiffs include the pointedly-named Good Morning to You Productions Corp., who are working on a documentary with the working title of Happy Birthday outlining the copyright struggles surrounding the song. They are additionally asking for monetary damages and the return of over $5 million in licensing fees Warner has collected from the song. (That decision will be settled later.)

If you’re looking for a good way to celebrate, Sept. 23 is Bruce Springsteen’s 66th birthday. (Hint hint.)