“Happy Birthday to You”: why you won’t hear it on TV

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The song “Happy Birthday to You” is allegedly the highest grossing song of all time. The beneficiary of the royalties is Warner/Chappell Music. Film or TV producers wanting to include the song in their production need to apply to Warner/Chappell for a licence to do so or, as is perhaps more common, muddle through with an alternative form of greeting.

That the latter course is more common is not surprising given that, according to reports, a basic licence can cost upwards of $500, with more likely to be charged for bigger productions (e.g. major films).

The film/TV industry has gone along with this for years but now the Warner/Chappell stranglehold on the song is being challenged. A company, with the name Good Morning to You Productions, is challenging the copyright in the song, having filed a class action back in 2013. At a hearing in March, both it and the defendant – Warner/Chappell – agreed that the case should stay with a judge but if he was unable to give a ruling, the case should go to trial.

The history of the song is a long and confused one, and it is upon that confusion that the claimant company will rely. The song was originally composed in the 1890s with the title “Good Morning to All”. The composers – two sisters – sold the rights to the song and over time the song has evolved and the owners of the rights have continued to change hands. Copyright is not due to expire until 2030 unless the court decides that the song belongs to the public domain – and there are plenty of people who think it does, maintaining that the copyright has already expired, if indeed there was any copyright in the song in the first place.

No date is set yet for the judge’s ruling. At this stage, the lesson is that copyright can exist in places where you would not necessarily expect to find it.