Happy Birthday Song is in the Public Domain

For years I have wondered with disbelief how the century-plus-old song Happy Birthday could be protected by copyright. The DS106 Daily Create activity published today touches on this with an assignment that challenges us to re-imagine the Happy Birthday song and shows several examples of how different television shows and movies got around the copyright.

Whenever possible, I use my media and digital literacy skills to question the “facts,” so I wondered if indeed the song Happy Birthday is protected by copyright. The first thing I found in a quick Internet search was the 2015 Snopes article that stated a judge had ruled the song is in the public domain. Well, I think Snopes is a credible source for information, but I’m not one to accept it as the final authority, so I did some more looking.

I also found a 2015 Variety article that seems to confirm what Snopes said about the ruling. There were a couple of other articles related to the case, the most interesting is the fact that a documentary filmmaker settled a class action case against Warner/Chappell Music. No way! How did I miss this news about the Happy Birthday song?

To me, it was really heartening to learn that sometimes the little guy can prevail in these copyright disputes. An important takeaway for those interested in copyright issues is the fact that big media will often overstep what the law actually requires; in the case of Warner/Chappell Music it was to the tune of two million bucks a year in royalties. But someone had to have the resources to challenge them on it.

Always keep in mind that there are provisions in copyright law for fair use of media. It is worth knowing what those provisions are and what the US legal system has to say about it. But a copyright owner won’t encourage others to make use of content under those fair use provisions and certainly won’t turn down royalty money coming in that it isn’t entitled to. I think our Daily Create assignment today highlights some ways to avoid copyright entanglements, but with this new information about the Happy Birthday song, it looks like we can sing the original to our heart’s desire.

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