Unless you’re extremely well informed or extremely paranoid, you may not be aware that every time you sung your little peanut “Happy Birthday” you were violating a copyright. In fact, so were your parents, and so were their parents. The song, which has its origins in the late 19th century, has actually been under copyright control since the mid-1930s — but everyone can rest easy because U.S. District Judge George H. King has just made officially what we all instinctively know: It makes no damn sense for “Happy Birthday” to be owned by anyone.
The judge’s ruling comes in a case brought, in part, by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who was working on a documentary about the tune when she realized that the timeline of the song’s ownership didn’t quite add up. The most recent owner, music publishing giant Warner/Chappell, acquired the song in 1998. But King’s ruling is based the original sale of the song, which apparently was specific to a piano arrangement and not the song lyrics. No big deal; Warner/Chappell was only making about $2 million a year charging film and TV producers who wanted authentic-sounding birthday scenes in their productions.
Now that one of the world’s most sung songs is finally in the public domain, you can rest easy knowing that, once a year, you’re not at risk of Junior’s college fund getting sucked dry by music publishing lawyers just because you wanted the kid to have a happy birthday.