If the culture industries wonder why people have so little respect for copyright law these days, they need look no further than the Warner Music Group’s claimed copyright of the song “Happy Birthday.” It’s a grotesque mockery of the avowed principles of copyright law and a scam on the public that has persisted for decades. But with a revenue stream of $5,000 a day, or $2 million a year, Warner Music is not about to stop charging people for the right to perform “its” song.
Thanks to a courageous filmmaker, however, this travesty may soon come to an end. Jennifer Nelson had been making a documentary about the “Happy Birthday” song when Warner said it would cost her $1,500 to use it in her film. Nelson filed a lawsuit two years ago, a remarkable challenge in itself to the usual legal bullying by copyright owners. After all, who has the money or stomach to battle large corporations with well-paid lawyers or to lobby Members of Congress whose minds have already been made up by campaign contributions from music, film and publishing companies? Most TV shows simply forbid their hosts and performers from singing "Happy Birthday," and various restaurants have come up with their own alternative songs, lest they incur licensing fees.
It now appears that Nelson’s legal team has uncovered hard evidence that the copyright to "Happy Birthday" has been invalid for years. In a storage facility used by the University of Pittsburgh, lawyers found a 1922 songbook that contained the lyrics of “Happy Birthday” in a song entitled “Good Morning and Birthday Song.” This is significant because there was no copyright notice on the song in the book – a requirement for copyright protection under the law at the time – and anything published before 1923 has entered the public domain and is free for anyone to use.