While it is has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most recognized” song of all time, “Happy Birthday To You” — the full title of the song best known as simply, “Happy Birthday” — is probably the most bootlegged song of all time as well.
Sung thousands of times every day throughout the English-speaking world, almost all by people who pay nothing in royalties, is nay song is in the public domain, that would be it.
But now the giant music company that actually owns the rights to “Happy Birthday” is fighting in court to keep that copyright, against a lawsuit that asks a judge to rule that the song is actually in the public domain, available for anyone to perform or record any time, for free.
The Hollywood Reporter has been covering the lawsuit exclusively, and now reports that Warner/Chappell, a music publishing giant, now contends that the three-year statute of limitations on the song’s copyright claim has long since expired.
Warner/Chappell, with the copyrights to more than a million songs in its catalog, is considered the world’s third-largest music publisher. It is a division of Warner Music Group which itself was part of the Time-Warner media empire, until the parent company sold it in 2004.
The class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of numerous musicians who hope to get the right to record the song without paying royalties to Warner/Chappell.
The musicians suing Warner/Chappell say that the first version of the song was penned in 1893 by two sisters, Patty Smith Hill and sister Mildred Hill. The song was originally entitled, “Good Morning To All,” but in the subsequent years, numerous variations of the song were sung and new lyrics were written and printed — all before anyone tried to copyright “Happy Birthday To You.”
By that time, the plaintiffs contend, the song “consisted entirely of information that was common property and contained no original authorship.”
They claim that if there was ever a valid copyright on the song, it expired in 1921.
Warner/Chappell now wants the lawsuit dismissed because the statute of limitations on challenging its own copyright claim has run out. Read the publisher’s motion to throw out the case, here.