Filmmakers Trying to Make the ‘Happy Birthday’ Song Public May Have Found “Smoking Gun”

By July 28, 2015

At this point, it’s one of the most natural parts of celebrating anyone becoming a year older, whether they’re turning 1 or 100. The song “Happy Birthday to You,” first composed back in 1893, is as natural to anyone’s birthday celebration as cake and ice cream. What many people don’t know, though, is that the song is actually owned by a subsidiary of a major music company, and any time someone in film or television wants to use it, they have to pay that company a hefty sum. Now, though, a group of filmmakers are trying to change that.

Two years ago, a group of documentarians aiming to make a film about the iconic song filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the validity of the Warner/Chappell music group’s copyright over it, which has been in existence since 1935. The plaintiff, Jennifer Nelson, was forced to pay Warner/Chappell a licensing fee of $1500 in order to use the subject of her documentary in the film. Of course, this displeased her and her collaborators, especially considering the origins of the song itself would likely make it older than any copyright can lay claim to. Normally, copyrights expire after a term of 100 years, after which the subjects of those copyrights enter the public domain. There are other limits on certain copyrights, though, which could expire after less time has passed.

According to a new post at Ars Technica, Nelson and the other plaintiffs in the case may have found, what they call, “smoking gun evidence” proving that the copyright is illegitimate. In their filing, they say that they have located a copyright for the song’s lyrics from 1927, which pre-dates the Warner/Chappell copyright by eight years. Because of this, the plaintiffs have determined that this “conclusively prove[s] that any copyright that may have existed for the song itself…expired decades ago.” If the case made by the plaintiff’s attorneys are accepted by the presiding judge, then that would likely mean a decisive path to victory, which will likely make both the “Happy Birthday” song publicly-owned material, as well as force Warner/Chappell to pay back what could amount to millions of dollars in licensing fees.

Warner/Chappell, which is a subsidiary of the Warner Music Group, have managed to earn as much as $2 million a year based solely on the licensing fees collected by the song itself. If this filing pans out, then the song could quickly become a financial liability for them, and you’ll likely see that song being more freely used in movies and television shows if those licensing fees are no longer necessary.

For more on the case and its possible ramifications, be sure to read the full piece at Ars Technica. GeekNation will keep an eye on the case as it develops further.

Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation,, The Huffington Post, and He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.