Are you breaking the law when you sing “Happy Birthday”?

So apparently, Warner Music owns the rights to the “Happy Birthday” song. Though some are challenging that in court.

I never really thought of Happy Birthday as an actual song, but apparently it is. And in the same way you can’t sing someone else’s song in a public production, you can’t do it with “Happy Birthday” either.

That means that movies that include the Happy Birthday song have to pay royalties.  Snopes confirms it.  It’s even a violation of copyright to sing Happy Birthday in a restaurant, those Snopes acknowledges that that’s rarely enforced.  (It is not, however, a violation of copyright to sing the song in private settings – only “public” settings.)

How much will it cost you to sing Happy Birthday in a movie or TV show? Somewhere bettween $5,000 and $30,000 dollars.

Reportedly, the Girl  Scouts were warned that they’d have to pay a fee if girls sang it around the campfire.  And this is, allegedly, the reason so many restaurants have fake-alternative ways of singing Happy Birthday, so they don’t have to pay royalties.

Some allege that the copyright is questionable, that Happy Birthday might already be public domain.  But until that argument wins in court – a lawsuit is ongoing – Warner Music will continue to collect $2 million a year up until 2030, when the copyright expires, and Happy Birthday will be free.


(I’m told that in order to better see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me.)


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Willie Wilmette

    How come life saving drugs benefit their creators for just 20 years while songs get 95 years of royalties before society gets free use of them?

  • Willie Wilmette

    Apple owns the rights to the word birthday on any electronic device. ;-) Happy Birthday!

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Explain that to the people who published Happy Birthday To You as we currently know it in at least 1912, yet the copyright is based on the 1935 application.

  • Nathanael

    Actually, I’m pretty sure Disney has resigned themselves to losing their next attempt at copyright extension. There was a pretty strong opposition to the last abusive (and unconstitutional) extension which they bought, and if they try again they’re going to face a really severe fight.

    Besides which, countries with shorter copyright terms now have a competitive advantage, and they’re *finally* starting to realize it.

    Disney is now trying to reinforce its *trademark* claims so that even when it loses its copyrights it can *still* prevent distribution. This strategy will probably actually work, but it requires more active work on Disney’s part.

  • Nathanael

    Yep. It’s an illegal copyright issuance. The 1935 copyright is completely bogus.

  • Nathanael

    Copyright starts at date of publication, at the latest.

  • Nathanael

    Warner Brothers doesn’t hold the copyright — they merely claim to. There’s a court case working its way through the courts to prove that their claim of copyright is fraudulent, dating from a fraudulent claim a very long time ago.

  • B00ZED

    Police State

  • ComradeRutherford

    How about the Beatles’ “Birthday”.

    My mom played that really loud first thing in the morning on my birthday…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjF1bG5LUcs

  • ComradeRutherford

    “until 2030, when the copyright expires, and Happy Birthday will be free.”

    Oh, no, not no fast.

    Disney ins’t about to let one frame of their property ever enter the Public Domain, they’ll pay Congress to continue to extend copyright into the future forever.

  • DRoseDARs

    That’s OK, everyone can sing this one instead:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2f2PCWYAZQc

  • Mrs. Norman Maine

    If you think that anything post 1923 is ever going to enter the public domain, you don’t know the Disney legal department (who actually drafts current US copyright law)

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    It is funny to think of it as a “song,” but I guess it is. Will be curious to see what happens with the lawsuit.

  • goulo

    Yes, but the point was that IF he’s going to pay royalties, THEN at least he’ll pay royalties for a good song instead of a lame song.

  • Dick_Woodcock

    I believe that is one of the points in the law suit. They shouldn’t have been granted a copyright in the first place because the melody is from another song.

  • Sameboat1

    So I wonder if they’re going to sue Marilyn Monroe’s estate? Greed and avarice rampant…

  • LanceThruster

    This might be available — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVLzZLn817Y

  • LanceThruster

    “The Birthday Cake Polka” smokes HBTY anyway.

    Just sayin’.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Y1jL-1KtWo

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Well, the really old ones based on hymns are most likely in public domain. But it can be kinda fussy, depending on when the song was copyrighted – which may not be even remotely close to the time when it was written/published.

  • Strepsi

    Except Carol of the bells, those aren’t carols, those are all the secular Christmas songs. But you are totally right — most were written in the 1930’s and 40’s.

    It is so interesting that the living Christmas standards were almost 100% created by American Jews (Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Johnny Marks, Jule Styne, Mel Torme, etc etc) to assimilate as immigrant Jews into American culture and holidays without buying into the overly religious Jesus part.

  • Strepsi

    LOL

  • bob

    Actually only the words to Carol Of The Bells are still under copyright. The music had its USA premiere in NYC in 1921, thus, having been published before 1923, the melody is now PD.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    One of the more obnoxious things is that the melody and words to Happy Birthday To You were rather well known and released publicly well before they were copyrighted in 1935. Someone just saw the opportunity to capitalize after the fact.

  • http://www.americablog.com/ Naja pallida

    Technically, many Christmas carols are still under copyright in the same way Happy Birthday To You is. Like Silver Bells, Let It Snow, White Christmas, Carol of the Bells… only the really old ones, like Joy To the World, Jingle Bells, Silent Night, etc, have had their copyrights expire with time.

  • melitagnm105

    my Aunty Julia got silver Volkswagen Beetle
    Convertible by working parttime off of a home computer… Look At This
    B­i­g­4­1­.­ℂ­o­m

  • http://americablog.com magster

    Make sure to see the Colbert video above, wherein he jokes about how serious WB is about enforcement.

  • UncleBucky

    To the tune of Volga Boatmen:

    Happy birthday, happy birthday…
    Sin and sorrow fills the air.
    People dying everywhere…. BUT…!!!
    Happy BIRTHday, UHhhhhhhh!

  • UncleBucky

    Fuck Warner.

    Ugh.

  • http://www.rebeccamorn.com/mind BeccaM

    It’s a lame song anyway. I’ve long been of the opinion we need a new birthday song tradition, preferably something written by someone who then releases it, in perpetuity, into the public domain.

    I mean, for god’s sake, nobody pays royalties on Christmas carols, right?

  • Indigo

    American’s most glamorous law-breaker ever

    [unfortunate ironies included]
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y74oWon5VTo

  • Strepsi

    Yes John, it’s the “public performance” that triggers the license. Did you never notice that no one ever sings “Happy Birthday” in almost any movie at all anymore? They make a toast, or cheer, or use one of these fake restaurant jingles.

    It’s a song, and it was originally written by sister teachers and called “Good morning to all”. It was written at the end pf the 19th century but is still licensed because of the (horrible, Walt Disney-pandering) Sonny Bono copyright act.

  • Strepsi

    Ummm, the Beatles catalogue is even more aggressively defended.

  • http://heimaey.us/ heimaey
  • dommyluc

    If I have to pay royalties, I’ll start singing “Birthday” by the Beatles, which is a great song, instead of that shitty and boring “Happy Birthday To You”.

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