The song Happy Birthday to You is in the public domain. But that didn’t stop a music publishing company collecting two million dollars a year for its use.
[Today is this website’s one year anniversary – it began on February 26, 2019, with a rather brief post about walking on water. Happy birthday to us!]
The song began with the sisters Patty and Mildred Hill. Mildred wrote the melody and Patty wrote the lyrics, and the song was called Good Morning to All. The lyrics we know today were not added until later: Happy Birthday to You – song and lyrics together – was first published in 1911.
In 1935, a piano arrangement of the song was published and copyrighted by the Summy Company. That copyright passed through many permutations of the company as it became the Summy-Birchard Company (1950s), then Birch Tree Group Limited (1970s); in 1988 it was absorbed into Warner/Chappell Music. That publisher was ruthless in enforcing its copyright: if you used the song in a movie, a TV show, or even sang it in public they were entitled to a cut. By 2008, Happy Birthday to You was collecting two million US dollars a year in royalties for Warner/Chappell.
Several shows made fun of this by offering alternative birthday songs. My favourites are from Futurama:
And the seventeen minute long metal anthem “Spirit Journey Formation Anniversary” from Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
However, in 2013 a documentarian named Jennifer Nelson changed everything. She sued Warner/Chappell, claiming that they did not own the copyright to the song and thus were owed no royalties. The lawsuit was long and messy, but the result was clear: she was right. The 1935 copyright applied to a specific piano arrangement and not the song itself. Warner/Chappell paid out US$14 million to groups who had previously paid them to perform the song, and Happy Birthday to You is now in the public domain forever more.