Oh, have you heard the rumor about "Happy Birthday" being copyrighted, and the copyright is held by a grasping old woman? There is a wonderful, witty blog post on Forbes.com about a class action law suit in the Southern District of New York, Good Morning to You Productions, Corp., v. Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. It turns out that Warner/Chappell, the huge music company claims the copyright, and has been collecting royalties from commercial use of the song for some years. The complaint asserts that the song, the tune for which was written in 1893, has been in the public domain for years.
From the blog post,
The history behind the song, and the relevant legal arguments, are set forth exhaustively in this excellent 2010 article by Robert Brauneis (PDF) a law professor at George Washington University. It’s a really interesting read even—maybe especially—if you are only interested in the history. It explains that the song was written for kindergarten students by two sisters in the late 19th century. Originally it was called “Good Morning to All,” and was first published in 1893. The words were different, obviously, but the melody was the same (each can get separate copyright treatment). At some point, the lyrics mutated to the familiar “happy birthday” ones, and Brauneis says the old melody and the new words then formed a new work for copyright purposes. Who owns that, though, if anyone, is not clear. To cut to the chase, Brauneis concludes in his article that the song has probably been in the public domain since 1963 at the latest.Apparently, Prof. Brauneis' article may become key to the class action case! The complaint lays out carefully the murky history of this most-recognizable song, and so does the article. Something interesting to watch!