Court Throws Out Happy Birthday Song Copyright

One of the reasons you never hear the Happy Birthday song at your favorite chain restaurant is due to fear of copyright infringement from performing the song which was written in 1893. Well fear no more. In September 2015, a federal judge in California has ruled that the alleged owner of the copyright in the song (Warner/Chappell) never had the right to charge for use of the song by third parties. The copyright the company relied on was for a specific piano arrangement of the song—not the original song itself.

Originally, the song was entitled “Good Morning to All” and was written by a Kentucky school teacher and her sister. The song gained widespread popularity and eventually became known as the Happy Birthday song when new lyrics were ascribed to it. As recently as this year, companies were paying many thousands of dollars for rights to perform the song. There was no question that the song itself had gone into the public domain—the issue was the Happy Birthday lyrics. Judge George H. King ruled that the sisters who wrote the song never made a copyright claim to the Happy Birthday lyrics. So it is unclear at best who owned the rights to such lyrics and determining that now would be an almost impossible task.

So now you may hear the familiar Happy Birthday tune and lyrics out in public on a much more regular basis. The lyrics have not been formally placed in the public domain, but based on this recent ruling, it is unlikely that there will be any more royalties paid to Warner/Chappell—a company that has received millions of dollars in royalties over the years.