The copyright of “Happy Birthday”

7 05 2009
210 POSH awc

Happy Birthday Ladies! Did you get a performance license for that song?

Did you know that someone claims ownership to the copyright to the song “Happy Birthday to You”?

It was referenced in the dissent of a well-known copyright case, Eldred v. Ashcroft.

In honor of the end of law school finals, here is some light summer reading for you.

A legal scholar did some digging and found out some interesting facts. Digging deeply into the authorship of the lyrics and the melody, technical legal issues, evidentiary issues and policy issues, the author provides a logical look at the facts of a song whose music was written in 1893, but was combined with lyrics and published in 1935.

So what is the answer- as in many legal issues, it’s complicated. I won’t spoil the ending for you, you can read the paper yourself. Reading like a soap opera for copyright nerds like me, it is not only a very interesting tale, but a great look at the history of copyright law.

Ultimately, until tested in court, we won’t have a definitive answer, and no one seems likely to challenge it (the article addresses why). In the mean time, the song earns over $2 million in licensing revenue every year.

Find the article at this link.

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