The Not-So-Happy Legal Battle Over ‘Happy Birthday to You’

Craig Rosen
Stop The Presses! (NEW)

It's one of the first songs we learn as kids and something you'll continue to hear and sing throughout your life. It's the "Happy Birthday" song, officially known as "Happy Birthday to You," and now it's spawned a not-so-happy lawsuit.

Believe it or not, the song written by sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill, first published in 1893, is not public domain. Rather, it's owned by the Warner Music Group — which means every time the song is performed on TV, in a movie or on stage, the music giant gets paid.

We can't help but wonder who — if anyone— forked over the cash when Marilyn Monroe famously crooned "Happy Birthday Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy in 1962. Lana Del Rey paid homage to that performance in the beginning of her 2012 song "National Anthem." Watch it below.

Now, a New York company that happens to be making a documentary about the tune has filed a class action lawsuit to free "Happy Birthday to You," Forbes reports. Of course, Good Morning To You Productions Corp. has a vested interest. They've already forked over a $1,500 licensing fee, rather than being sued $150,000 for unauthorized use of the song, and they'd like their money back.

Although the Hill sisters' version of the song was published in 1893, another set of lyrics was published in 1924, and a piano arrangement in 1935. Those dates are important because in the U.S., songs don't move into public domain until 95 years after they were published, so WMG's Warner/Chappell unit maintains the rights to the song until 2030, based on the publishing of the 1935 version.

However, the film-makers — likely in doing their research for their documentary — claim the song was already circulating in 1901, an Indiana school field for copyright in 1912, and if Warner has the rights to any version, it's only the 1935 piano arrangement.

In their suit, the film-makers say, "Defendant Warner/Chappell either has silenced those wishing to record or perform 'Happy Birthday to You' or has extracted millions of dollars in licensing fees from those unwilling to challenge its ownership claims."

And that's where the problem lies — there are few individuals or companies willing to do battle with Warner in court over the song, because it could end up costing a fortune.

So while the ownership of one of the world's most popular songs remains in debate, feel free to sing it at your leisure to your friends and family. Just don't put it in a TV show, film or play, or you could end up having to send all your birthday money to your friends at Warner/Chappell.

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