Whoever picked “Happy Birthday to You” to be the b-day song of choice clearly felt no sympathy towards those of us who are not musically gifted. For generations, friends and family have been forced to participate in some truly horrific versions of the song before digging in to a well-deserved slice of cake. (That octave leap’s a real challenge, isn’t it, Justin Beiber?) The ditty may be the world’s most popular English-language song, but despite its universality, a long-standing copyright law forced filmmakers to keep the tune out of movies and TV shows. Until yesterday.
U.S. District Judge George H. King gave an opinion Tuesday that the copyright on the song is not valid, which means we can potentially continue to take part in this hallowed tradition free from fear of being sued (except maybe for causing hearing damage). In his 43-page ruling, King explained that the copyright, originally obtained by the Clayton F. Summy Co., only covered specific piano arrangements of the song. This means that unless someone comes forward with a valid claim of ownership, Hollywood et al is now free to use the melody without paying royalties to Warner/Chappel Music (which assumed the copyright in 1998). Unfortunately for Warner/Chappel, this means a loss of $2 million in reported revenue.
The classic song, written before 1893, shares the same melody as the lesser-known tune “Good Morning to All” written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill. Since then, pretty much every famous singer has taken a crack at the song with varying degrees of success. Sorry Biebs, but we’d take Whitney Houston or Stevie Wonder’s happy birthday wishes over yours any day.