Have you ever wondered why the waiters and waitresses who sing a song when they serve a birthday desert in a restaurant almost never sing the famous “Happy Birthday To You” song that you sing at home? It’s usually a song and tune that they or someone else working for the restaurant made up. They use a different version because if they used the famous song, their restaurant could be sued. However, a recent court ruling may change that.
A little background. Since 1988 when Warner Music bought the copyright to the “Happy Birthday To You” song, restaurants, television production companies and others wanting to use the song for commercial purposes have had to pay a large licensing fee to Warner or risk getting served with a lawsuit. According to some reports, Warner collected as much as $2 million per year in royalties they earned from licensing the song to others.
All that is going to change now because a federal judge ruled that Warner doesn’t hold a valid copyright to the song. To make a long story short, U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled that the copyright Warner purchased in 1988 doesn’t apply to the version of the song we’re all familiar with. For a good summary of the history of the litigation that cost Warner the rights to the song, check out this Washington Post article.
Just because Warner won’t be making money off the song doesn’t mean someone else won’t, though. The song was written by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in the late 1800s and was eventually published in several song books. The copyright Warner purchased came from the publisher of just one of those song books, so one of the other publishers or someone else could step forward to claim ownership of the song now. Or, a court could rule that the tune the Hill sisters used was already public domain, so everyone would then be able to use it.
While the battle over the song continues, you can see an entertaining montage of how TV writers have changed the song over the years to avoid being sued by clicking here.