The Twisted History Of The Happy Birthday Song And The Copyright Shenanigans That Keep It Profitable

Here's more on "Happy Birthday", via Boing Boing:

This suit was nearing its conclusion when a thrilling last-minute piece of evidence emerged from Warner/Chappell: an excerpt of a 1927 title called The Everyday Song Book produced by the piano-making firm, The Cable Company. The song, numbered 16, is called "Good Morning and Birthday Song" with the main lyrics under the score, and "optional" words below for "Happy Birthday." The ostensible copyright notice was blurred in the version supplied by the music company.

Nelson's lawyer noted it was not the first edition, and were able to get a library to dig up the 1922 version. The same version appears there without a legally required statement of copyright.

This would seem to be the end of the line for "Happy Birthday." The (plaintiff) should prevail; fees collected starting in 2009, within the statute of limitations at the time the suit was filed, should be refunded; and a clear future would be established for public-domain use. But copyright is a crooked path.

It would be nice to close the book on "Happy Birthday," but it doesn't close the book on copyright absurdity. An abundance of material from 1923 is poised to enter the public domain in 2019 unless a further taking of the public interest occurs, as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act did in 1998, adding an unnecessary 20 years to the existing 50 years' protection past an authors' death.


I've been following this convoluted case for a while, and the article on Boing Boing quoted above is perhaps the best summation of the whole thing that I've seen. It also includes background on the sisters who wrote "Happy Birthday" … their story, which I didn't really know, is fascinating.