We thought "Happy Birthday To You," the most popular song of the 20th Century, belonged to America; to every insufferable child who glared at you over the frosting of their yellow cake with white icing if you refused to participate in the atonal homage to their existence; to every adult who leads the nostalgic exercise in previously peaceful bars and restaurants [Ed: Chris hasn't taken his nap today & left his binky at home]. It's dirty and solipsistic, but at least it's free, right? Wrong.
Warner Brothers' publishing arm, Warner/Chappell Music, demanded $1,500 in usage fees from a company aiming to make a documentary on the song. The company, Good Morning To You Productions, paid the fee, but in the course of researching the film, the company says they found evidence that Warner/Chappell's copyright was invalid.
From the lawsuit:
Irrefutable documentary evidence, some dating back to 1893, shows that the copyright to Happy Birthday to You, if there ever was a valid copyright, expired no later than 1921...
More than 120 years after the melody to which the sample lyrics of Happy Birthday to You is set [sic] was first published, defendant Warner/Chappell boldly, but wrongfully and unlawfully, insists that it owns the copyright to Happy Birthday to You…Defendant Warner/Chappell either has silenced those wishing to record or perform Happy Birthday to You or has extracted millions of dollars in unlawful licensing fees from those unwilling or unable to challenge its ownership claims.
The original song, "Good Morning To All," (pssh what the hell kind of song title is THAT) was dreamed up by the Hill Sisters.
The Hill Sisters eventually Sold Out, selling their song and the words to a manuscript, which eventually turned into "Happy Birthday," which was published in a songbook in 1924. Warner/Chappell Music has claimed they have owned the rights to that book, which means they'd have the rights until 2019.
The filmmakers however, allege that kids were singing the song as early as 1900, and a church board filed for a copyright for a song called "Happy Birthday to You" (using the same tune) in 1911, complicating Warner/Chappell Music's claims.
The film company is suing for more than $5 million for a "class" of people who have been forced by the publishing company to pay up for the rights to the song.
A spokeswoman for Warner/Chappell Music declined to comment but said she'd pass our request along. You can read the full complaint and the sordid history of "Happy Birthday" below.