Copyright law and the Happy Birthday song as your research topic

“Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you. Happy Birthday dear (name). Happy Birthday to you.” Believe it or not, those four repetitive words earned Warner/Chappell, the publishing branch of the huge Warner Music Group, $2 million a year in royalties. A legal battle brewed over the rights to the song when filmmaker Jennifer Nelson challenged copyright laws to the popular birthday music.

The Happy Birthday song is worth millions of dollars in licence fees every year to music publishing company Warner/Chappell. (Credit: Will Clayton/Flickr)

The Happy Birthday song is worth millions of dollars in licence fees every year to music publishing company Warner/Chappell. (Credit: Will Clayton/Flickr)

Interesting research paper topics would be to write about the history and the copyright law on the “Happy Birthday to You” song.

Royalty payments due

The royalty payments paid on the “Happy Birthday” song would make a good term paper topic. When you sing Happy Birthday to a friend at school or to your 80-year-old granny, you obviously don’t have to pay royalties. But if you’re a television show, theatrical play or movie, you have to pay big. Fees vary but some have reached $10,000. In 2013, filmmaker Jennifer Nelson thought it was ridiculous that she had to pay $1,500 in royalties to put the song in her film (which she did and had to pay). Nelson decided to sue Warner/Chappell, claiming that they did not own the rights and that the song should be in the public domain. “It is shocking that someone claims to own it and others therefore have to pay a fee to use it,” said Nelson in a statement released by her lawyers, posted at “Who really wrote the ‘Happy Birthday’ song?” by Andrew Wolfson at USA Today, June 29, 2013. “I hope to return it to the public where it rightfully belongs,” said Nelson.

Creation of a cultural icon

You can write a term paper tracing the copyright of the song. In Kentucky, Mildred and Patty Hill were spinsters who were kindergarten teachers. They wrote the song “Good Morning to All” in 1893. When the custom of giving children birthday parties evolved around that time, the tune got the new lyrics “Happy Birthday to You.” Both song and lyrics were published in 1912, but with no authors credited. In 1935, a relative of Patty and a music publisher copyrighted “Happy Birthday to You” and demanded $250 in royalties per use. In 1988, Warner bought the song along with 50,000 others for $25 million, and started charging royalty fees.

Warner/Chappell contends that their copyright runs through 2030. George Washington University law professor Bob Brauneis disagrees. Writing in “How Singing Happy Birthday Can Cost You a Small Fortune,” in London’s Daily Mail August 3, 2015, a reporter said: “Making a distinction between melody and lyrics, Prof. Brauneis says copyright on the Hills’ tune, written in 1893, ran out decades ago. But there is no evidence the sisters wrote the Happy Birthday words. Indeed nobody knows who did, so they shouldn’t be under copyright either.”

Ruling and settlement in the Happy Birthday case

You could write a paper on the legal decision of the copyright case. In the case, Warner had difficulty proving they owned the song. The judge found that there was no copyright agreement between the Hill sisters who wrote it and the publisher, and the copyright registration from 1935 is only for a musical arrangement of the song. The dispute was whether the copyright included the lyrics. The court ruled that Warner does not own the copyright to the song. Warner agreed to a settlement deal. “The proposed deal… offers up to $14 million for those who paid licensing fees to use the song,” noted Matt Hamilton in “‘Happy Birthday’ lawsuit: Tentative settlement puts song in public domain,” posted in Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2016. Anyone who did pay royalty fees to put the song in a movie or show, as far back as 1949, can get some of their money back through the settlement. The song now goes into the public domain.

For more information, check out Questia’s library on Copyright law. 

Do you think all those who paid a royalty should get their money back?

1 reply
  1. Larry (Lorenzo Bernardotto - It.) says:

    Well … Lorraine … for a moment … I have believed you said me: “Happy Birthday to you” … I began thinking: “Why? My birthday is in September … and we are only in April!”. :-)))

    Comic discourse apart … it would be a problem should I say “Happy birthday” to my 93-years-old mother … and pay … 1,000 Euros/Dollars to do it.

    No … about your question … the royalties … I think are a unjust thing … or … at least … they are too expensive … and should be cheaper!

    Some years ago … when I wanted to be a writer … and asked information in England … they asked me 700 pounds to enter that “world” … Of course I had … and have not nowadays … this money … so my little writings will remain buried in my archive forever.

    I mean … why must I pay in advance 700 pounds … without be sure my writings will be successful?


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