The Happy Birthday song is one of those songs that everybody knows and probably sings several times a year... right?
But have you noticed that when it comes to the movies, you rarely hear the song?
But it looks like that'll be changing.
Up until Now
If you have ever heard the song in a movie, you know that the filmmaker/studio paid good money to the song's copyright owner: Warner Music Group. In fact, they have brought in around $2 million a year in licensing fees for this song alone. Depending on the project/performance. An indie documentary might have had to pay something like $1,200. For other projects, the song could have cost as much as $10,000.
That's right. For one single song. (Or there's the $150,000 fine...)
That's why most movies would skip the song altogether. Or decide to go with "For She/He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in its place (which is in the public domain).
But recently, a group of independent artists decided that enough was enough. They brought the song to court to try to prove that the copyright is no longer valid and is actually in the public domain. (By the way, any song published in 1922 or earlier is considered in the public domain. And songs in the public domain don't cost a penny...)
A Brief History
The melody was originally published in 1893 as "Good Morning to All" (written by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill). The combo melody with words appeared in 1912. (Sounds like public domain material, doesn't it?)
But when the song was included in the Irving Berlin show As Thousands Cheer in 1933, a lawsuit ensued and "Happy Birthday to You" was registered for copyright in 1935 by the Clayton F. Summy Company (publisher for the Hill sisters). Note: This was AFTER the 1922 cutoff date, which is why they could claim it wasn't in the public domain. The copyright eventually transferred to the current holders.
Fast Forward to Now
On Tuesday (September 22, 2015), the U.S. District Judge ruled that "Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics."
So... it looks like the Happy Birthday song is indeed in the public domain! The copyright is only on the particular piano arrangement, not the song itself.
Which means movies can starting showing birthday party scenes, letting characters sing to their hearts' content. But will they? Really, if you think about it, how many movies need a birthday scene? Unless the story demands it, there is really no need to have people sing Happy Birthday in a movie just for the sake of singing Happy Birthday. So, with that said, we may not see much more of the song than we currently see.
But, it's still nice for filmmakers not to have to worry about paying money to secure the permission to use such an old, well-known song.
[Photo by Will Clayton]