'Happy Birthday to You' Lawsuit Wishes for End to Licensing Fees

By Betty Wang, JD on June 14, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A not-so-happy "Happy Birthday to You" lawsuit insists the popular song belongs to the public, and not to Warner/Chappell Music Inc., the publishing division of Warner Music Group.

A proposed class action suit requests that a federal court deem the song's rightful place to be in the public domain. As it's been more than 120 years since the melody and lyrics were first published, Warner is wrongfully and unlawfully claiming ownership to "Happy Birthday to You," the lawsuit asserts.

The suit also argues that Warner/Chappell collects more than $2 million a year in licensing fees on the song, Reuters reports. Will the plaintiff's wish for a return of those fees come true?

The 'Happy Birthday' Song Dispute

A copyright is a form of protection under the law to creators of original works. This includes songs, of course. The owner of the copyright then maintains the exclusive right to reproduce that work, sell the work, perform the work publicly, and so forth.

Music licensing is the licensed use of the copyrighted music by others. A license ensures that the rightful owner of the copyright is compensated. Essentially, this is what Warner/Chappell (and the company it acquired) has done for more than 100 years now, since the inception of the song.

The song was written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, and sold in 1893 to a company that was eventually purchased by Warner Music Group in 1998, the suit claims.

So, the song is old. But where in the law does it allow for a copyrighted work to be thrust into the public domain, and thus, unprotected? Formerly copyrighted work enters the public domain in a number of ways, one is when the copyright expires.

How Long Do Copyrights Last?

Copyright protections, in general, usually last for however long depending on when they were originally published. For example, works published between 1923 and 1964 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. It's very likely that works published even before that time most definitely belong in the public domain at this point.

However, another issue to consider in this case is when the song was arguably "published." Also, what was published, exactly? The simple melody? Or the lyrics that accompanied it?

Until a court rules on the "Happy Birthday" song lawsuit, the licensing fees remain in place. For those of you nervous about singing the tune at your next birthday party, have some cake and rest assured that unless you intend on making a documentary or TV show about the song -- as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are hoping to do -- you're probably safe.

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