The tune "Happy Birthday to You" is a mainstay at birthday parties everywhere, so popular that the Guinness Book of World Records declared it the most recognized song in the English language. But to include it in a television show or movie costs big bucks, as Warner Music subsidiary Warner/Chappell demands $1,500 in licensing fees for a single use, claiming to be the song's copyright holder. A class action lawsuit is looking to change that, however, and to bring the ubiquitous tune into the public domain.
Jennifer Nelson, a producer making a documentary about the song, filed a lawsuit Thursday under her company Good Morning to You Productions to challenge Warner/Chappell's copyright claim to "Happy Birthday to You," as first reported by The Hollywood Reporter. Not only does the lawsuit ask the courts to consider the song "Happy Birthday to You" free and available for public use, it also suggests that Warner/Chappell owes millions of dollars to those it has charged for licensing fees for the song.
The song reportedly came to being in the late 1800s, with a melody written by Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill, but with different lyrics and a different title: "Good Morning to All." The lawsuit meticulously details how the song evolved to the "Happy Birthday" version sung around the world today. It says early copies of "Happy Birthday to You" do not attribute its words to anyone, "evidence that the lyrics were not authored by the Hill sisters."
According to the lawsuit, Warner/Chappell – which in 1988 purchased the small company that held the song's rights – can at best claim the rights to the piano arrangement published in 1935, and cannot charge for the use of the words or melody.
"It's a song created by the public, it belongs to the public, and it needs to go back to the public," Mark C. Rifkin, Nelson's lawyer, told the New York Times.
It is estimated that Warner/Chappell makes $2 million a year selling the rights to the song.