Happy Birthday song free from copyright?


NEW YORK • Lawyers for a filmmaker in New York said they had discovered "smoking-gun" evidence that the song Happy Birthday To You should no longer be subject to copyright restrictions.

As it stands, it is safe to sing the tune at office gatherings, and lawyers are unlikely to halt children's birthday parties. But Warner/ Chappell, the publishing arm of Warner Music Group and holder of the song's copyright, has been estimated to collect US$2 million (S$2.73 million) a year in licensing fees for its use in films, television shows and other productions.

Film-maker Jennifer Nelson filed a lawsuit in 2013 after paying US$1,500 to use the song in her documentary, which was tentatively titled Happy Birthday, asking that the company return any fees it had collected in the previous four years. Her lawyers now say, based on new evidence, that Happy Birthday To You has been free of copyright protection since 1922.

On July 13, defence lawyers produced 500 pages of documents, 200 of which they said were mistakenly omitted earlier in the litigation, according to a court filing. The new documents included a 1927 publication of the song lyrics that included no claim of copyright. Further investigation by Nelson's lawyers uncovered an edition of the book from 1922, also with no copyright notice.

The court filing argues that copyright law at the time required such a notice and that without it, the work was "interjected irrevocably into the public domain".

One of Nelson's lawyers said they brought the new evidence to the court's attention within hours of its discovery. A hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Happy Birthday To You traces back to the late 1800s, written by two sisters, Mildred J. and Patty Smith Hill.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2015, with the headline 'Happy Birthday song free from copyright?'. Print Edition | Subscribe