It’s hard to imagine that such a commonplace song as Happy Birthday to You is still under copyright, but in most countries that’s the case. The copyright is owned by the Time Warner conglomerate, and if you sing it in a public place (such as at a restaurant) you are liable to pay a royalty for the privilege. The royalties are collected in the US by ASCAP, who reportedly collect over $2 million each year from this one song, accounting for over one percent of all the royalties that ASCAP distributes to songwriters.
How can this be? The song was written in 1893 by Mildred Hill as Good Morning to All, with a tune quite similar to earlier songs. Some time after that, people started singing “Happy Birthday to You” to the same tune. In 1934, Mildred’s sister Jessica Hill sued for the rights to the song, and registered its copyright in 1935. Subsequent corporate sales and mergers led to the rights falling under the umbrella of the Time Warner conglomerate.
Back in 1935 copyright lasted 28 years and could be renewed for a further 28, so the song would have fallen into the public domain in 1991. New laws in 1976 changed the term of copyright retrospectively to 75 years, and in 1998 another 20 years were added. If no further retrospective extensions are legislated, the copyright will expire in 2030 in the United States and at the end of 2016 in Europe. The tune, being from the earlier song, is already out of copyright.
There’s some controversy over the copyright status of this song, and some researchers consider the case for its copyright to be weak, yet the legal position is sufficiently robust that large royalties continue to be collected without a legal challenge. For this reason, many birthday scenes on film or on the stage include only a tiny snippet of the song, or sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow instead.
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