Everything you know about the Happy Birthday song is wrong

Pax Arcana

For most of the 1980s, Pax Arcana was convinced that Michael Jackson “owned” the Happy Birthday song — having purchased its copyright with his untold millions.

I was sure this was the case because someone once told me. I was also sure that the killer clown worked as a janitor at my school and that eating Pop Rocks with Coke would cause your stomach to explode.

It turns out that misunderstandings of the ownership of the Happy Birthday song are so widespread as to have complicated the legal issues around the song.

As you may have noticed, most movies, TV shows, and chain restaurants refrain from singing the common Birthday Song. This is because the Warner Music Group paid $15 million for the rights to the song in 1990 and aggressively pursues copyright claims against commercial entities that use it without paying royalties. Warner allegedly collects $2 million per year from such claims.

But this paper from George Washington University Law School professor Robert Brauneis (via Techdirt) says the origins of the song are so convoluted — and so obscured by myth — that the copyright itself is invalid:

The song that became “Happy Birthday to You,” originally written with different lyrics as “Good Morning to All,” was the product of intense creative labor, undertaken with copyright protection in mind. However, it is almost certainly no longer under copyright, due to a lack of evidence about who wrote the words; defective copyright notice; and a failure to file a proper renewal application.

That reminds me. I have to file the renewal application for my copyright on Apache.

Hey — I never said I was proud of it.

Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song [SSRN]
The Happy Birthday Copyright Saga: Generating Millions On A Copyright That May Not Exist [Techdirt]

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