When making the case that the terms of copyright protection are too long – currently, an author’s lifetime plus 70 years – it is not uncommon to note that “Happy Birthday to You” is still under copyright. Yes, that ubiquitous little ditty of folk culture is a piece of private property. It should inspire a fair bit of outrage that a song first published in 1893 will remain copyrighted until 2030.
While you won’t get dunned for singing it at home, the private ownership of the song means that many restaurants such as Red Lobster and Outback Steakhouse have had to develop their own “birthday songs” in order to avoid paying a “public performance” licensing fee to ASCAP. If a documentary film or TV broadcast (such as the news) carries a snippet of “Happy Birthday,” the producers must pay a fee to Summy-Birchard, the current owner of the song, which is also a subsidiary of Warner/Chappell Music Inc., which is the publishing arm of Warner Music Group, which itself is owned by Time Warner.