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'Happy Birthday' Is Now Officially In The Public Domain
"Happy Birthday (to You)" might be the most recognized song in the English language, but it hasn't actually been in the public domain for decades. All that changed Monday, when a federal judge signed off on settlement between Warner/Chappell Music and and a group of plaintiffs, putting the song back in the public domain.
According to City News Service, Warner/Chappell will end its claim of ownership and refund a total of $14 million, to be distributed among a group of people who have paid licensing fees for use of the song over the previous five decades.
"Happy Birthday," which American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has described as being "far and away...the most popular song of the twentieth century," was first composed by a pair of Kentucky sisters more than a century ago.
The song was first copyrighted during the 1930s and by the 1970s, after a series of corporate acquisition, its copyright was owned by a music education firm called Birchtree, Ltd. Birchtree was sold to Warner Communications in 1988, according to Pricenomics's 2015 history of the song and its copyright (which, btw, is a great read). Acquiring Birchtree ended up being a lucrative move for Warner, as Pricenomics explains:
Over time, the copyright has proven to be incredibly lucrative for its holders. Warner/Chappell, who charges anywhere from $1,500 to $50,000 to use the song in movies, radio spots, and ads, is reported to make some $2 million a year off of the song. Through a series of renewals, Warner/Chappell claims to own the copyright until 2030 -- and until then, the company plans to continue aggressively protecting it.
Don't worry, you can still sing it in the shower. Warner/Chappell only sends out bills when the song is used commercially, or for public performances (defined under current copyright law as "a place open to the public, or any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered").
Plaintiff Rupa Marya—who was serenaded with "Happy Birthday" during a live show in 2013, and then later found out she'd have to pay Warner/Chappell $455 to include the song on her album Live at the Independent—told LAist that she felt "liberated."