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Fourth echelon

an end to happy birthday song?

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It’s time to end the Happy Birthday song’s copyright protection

It’s probably one of the most well-known songs the world over: “Bon anniversaire”, “Tanti auguri a te”, “Happy birthday to you”. And for the past 80 years it has been under copyright, which is now owned by the publisher Warner Chappell. They earn an estimated US$2m a year from royalties, which are paid for the right to use the classic song in films, television, radio, advertising. But a court challenge could soon change all this.

Filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was making a documentary about “Happy Birthday” and its long history, filed a lawsuit against Warner Chappell in 2013 in the US. The suit followed a charge of US$1,500 to use the song in the documentary. As well as seeking the return of this charge, Nelson’s case is fighting for the song to be declared part of the public domain. 

Long history

The song’s history dates back to 1893 when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, introduced it to Patty’s kindergarten class in the US state of Kentucky. Students then apparently began spontaneously singing it at birthday parties, changing the lyrics to “Happy Birthday”. Copyright was registered in 1935 after another lawsuit over its usage.



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