Who owns “Happy Birthday to You”? Lawsuit says we all do.

As librarians, we find copyright law pretty interesting. Every day we deal with questions of the legality of lending, sharing, copying, and performing various types of material. One of the most commonly cited ideas about copyright is that a company, Warner/Chappell Music, owns the rights to one of the most commonly performed songs in the western world, “Happy Birthday to You”. According to TechDirt, a documentary film company is challenging that idea in court.

Whenever a song is played before a group of people, especially in a public place, that’s considered a public performance. Whoever owns the copyright to that song is supposed to be paid for that performance. Songs you’ve heard in concerts, at restaurants, and even in church are supposed to be paid for, usually via licensing fees. There’s a reason that restaurants that sing to their patrons usually have their own songs.

If you have sung “Happy Birthday to You” to your nephew at Chuck E. Cheese, you should have paid for the privilege. If you put a video of it on YouTube, you probably should have paid a lot more, because now you’ve distributed that performance. At least, that’s true if Warner/Chappell really owns it.

According to Good Morning To You Productions, a documentary film company, they don’t. The case is complicated, but it boils down to two key ideas. The women that Warner/Chappell claim to have written the song really wrote something else, and the individual copyrights on versions published since then have all expired.

It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out, not only to clear you for your egregious cases of copyright infringement, but also because it would mean that Warner/Chappell would have to repay millions of dollars it has collected over the decades from film and television producers who wanted to use the song.

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