After Copyright Ruling, Let The People Sing 'Happy Birthday' Tuesday's ruling by a federal judge that the copyright of the "Happy Birthday" song applies only to specific piano arrangements, not the actual song itself, means the song is now public domain.
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After Copyright Ruling, Let The People Sing 'Happy Birthday'

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After Copyright Ruling, Let The People Sing 'Happy Birthday'

Law

After Copyright Ruling, Let The People Sing 'Happy Birthday'

After Copyright Ruling, Let The People Sing 'Happy Birthday'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/442761620/442761621" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Tuesday's ruling by a federal judge that the copyright of the "Happy Birthday" song applies only to specific piano arrangements, not the actual song itself, means the song is now public domain.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At last, this song belongs to us all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And there's that variation about living in a zoo, but never mind. A court ruling has limited the copyright for "Happy Birthday." It's a change in the status of this song that the song has held for about 80 years.

MONTAGNE: During all that time, anyone who wanted to use the song with the lyrics had to pay. That includes filmmakers, greeting card companies, even restaurants.

INSKEEP: The most recent company to own the copyright is Warner/Chappell, which bought it back in the 1980s. Then people, including filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, sued. She spoke with NPR back in July.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JENNIFER NELSON: You know, we don't feel that it should belong to anybody at this point. It's over 100 years old. It should be for the people.

MONTAGNE: Yesterday, a federal judge in Los Angeles issued a ruling. The judge says the copyright of "Happy Birthday" only applies to very specific piano arrangements of the song, not the actual song itself. So the song is in the public domain.

INSKEEP: The Los Angeles Times reports that, up to now, the copyright has earned its owners about $2 million per year. It has earned that much money, even though many people wanting to use "Happy Birthday" for commercial purposes have resorted to creative variations to avoid payment, like the Three Stooges in this rendition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AN ACHE IN EVERY STAKE")

MOE HOWARD: (As himself, singing) We baked you a birthday cake.

LARRY FINE: (As himself, singing) If you get a tummy ache...

CURLY HOWARD: (As himself, singing) ...And you moan and groan and woe...

, FINE AND C. HOWARD M. HOWARD, FINE AND C. HOWARD: (As themselves, singing in unison) ...Don't forget we told you so.

INSKEEP: Then, there's this version from the movie "Waiting."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITING")

JUSTIN LONG: (As Dean, singing) I don't know what I've been told...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Someone here is getting old.

LONG: (As Dean, singing) Good news is dessert is free.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Bad news is we sing off-key.

LONG: (As Dean, singing) Happy birthday...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...To you.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the catchy version from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

FRED ROGERS: (As himself, singing) Happy birthday, happy birthday, dear friend. We sing to you.

INSKEEP: Sounds to me like the need for creativity worked out pretty well there. But the need for a "Happy Birthday" workaround is now over, at least for now. The music publisher, Warner/Chappell, has said in a statement, after this court ruling that changed everything that they are considering their options.

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