In 1893, Patty and Mildred Hill composed the Good Morning Song and sang it to Patty’s kindergarten class. In 1922, the sisters published the Everyday Song Book containing the Good Morning and Birthday Song. The Summy Company bought the rights in 1935. For the next eighty years royalties have been collected for singing the popular tune. When Warner/Chappell bought the song in 1988, singing it in movies, restaurants, or any other paying venue, could cost up to $10,000. That’s why you seldom hear the song sung in movies. Restaurants like Red Robin composed their own Happy Birthday song to stay out of trouble. Customers could sing it in restaurants, but not the staff.
On September 22nd, after years of disputing the rights to the song, Judge George H. King ruled Happy Birthday to You should never have been copyrighted. He concluded the original arrangement is protected, but not the song. For the first time since 1935 singing Happy Birthday to You in paying establishments is free.
What does this mean to you? We’ve always had the right to sing it as long as we weren’t getting paid. We will start hearing it on television and in movies. Free songs like Auld Lang Syne will be shelved to collect dust along with For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow. Both songs were played as substitutes. I could only find a lame rendition of Happy Birthday on YouTube, uploaded yesterday, but would imagine hundreds will appear over the next month.
What does this mean to me? Most likely, my Happy Birthday post discussing Warner/Chappell’s fines, will dwindle. It went viral on Reddit back in December 2014 getting over 50,000 views in twenty-four hours.
What about all the people and businesses who paid huge copyright fees and fines to Warner/Chappell over the last twenty-seven years? I wouldn’t be surprised to see some lawsuits arise to retrieve their costs. The key to these claims will hinge on the Judge’s words. According to the LA Times, the Judge said Warner/Chappell never had the right to charge for the use of the song.
Last week, I ate in a Falmouth restaurant in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The piano player sang Happy Birthday to one of the waitresses and everyone from the restaurant joined in. I straightened up and wondered if the Judge’s verdict had finally been handed down. The piano man must have been optimistic or psychic. Either way, the public serenade was the first of many more to come.
Did you know about the Happy Birthday copyright? What do you think about artists’ rights and royalties?