If you follow any old-person music news, you’ve probably heard that the copyright to the “Happy Birthday Song” has been in dispute for a while now. If you don’t follow old-people news, you probably didn’t even know that the song was copyrighted, and that you were BREAKING THE LAW every time you sang it. Well, not really. Unless you sang it in a movie or restaurant. In person, you were probably fine and it’s not like anyone was really going to come and get you. OR WERE THEY? I never risked it.
Basically, the song is copyrighted by Warner, and like any copyrighted song you would need to license it if you wanted to use it, which rubbed some filmmakers the wrong way because of the ubiquity of that particularly tune (and the fact that they were apparently unable to complete their films without paying the $1,500 or so it cost to license the song, because they are “independent” filmmakers). But whatever, even if it’s a super popular song, the writers should get their due. However, the crux of the lawsuit was that the actual songwriters were loooooong dead and the song perhaps wasn’t even properly copyrighted back in the 20s when it was originally written, which would mean that when Warner bought the copyright in 1988 it wasn’t even valid. Plus, it’s the damn “Happy Birthday Song.” Like, come on.
It’s been going around the courts for about 2 years now, but yesterday a federal judge in California ruled that it didn’t belong to Warner, basically meaning you’re free to sing and use the song however you like now. Of course, Warner can also appeal, so if you’ve been planning any projects that figure heavily around the song, get those off of the ground ASAP.
If you’re interested in the history of the “Happy Birthday Song” (which, for real, you are a little bit), The Washington Post has a great article about its history and the sister who wrote it.