One of the most popular songs in history could soon be entering the public domain after a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled Tuesday that the longstanding copyright on “Happy Birthday to You” was invalid. (Just in time for Bruce Springsteen’s 66th birthday.)
For decades, the rights to the century-old song have changed hands until Warner/Chappell publishing scooped it up in 1988 and began to aggressively protect their copyright by charging royalties for the use of “Happy Birthday to You” in movies and TV shows. However, a federal judge determined that the copyright claim that Warner/Chappell held was not valid, as the original 1935 copyright of “Happy Birthday to You” applied only to a specific piano arrangement, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Furthermore, “Good Morning To All,” the 1893 song that lends its melody to “Happy Birthday to You,” has long been in public domain. Warner/Chappell estimated that it made $2 million in royalties a year from “Happy Birthday to You,” charging anywhere from $1,000 to “six figures” for the song’s usage in film and television.
The efforts to unshackle “Happy Birthday to You” from its copyright were spearheaded by a group of filmmakers working on a documentary about the song. “‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” the filmmakers’ attorney Randall Newman said. “Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”
As a result of the judge’s ruling, anyone who paid Warner/Chappell for usage of “Happy Birthday to You” could potentially sue the publishers, since they didn’t have the proper copyright claim to ask for royalties to begin with. The plaintiffs said they would launch a class action suit against Warner/Chappell to recoup those royalties.
A spokesman for Warner/Chappell told the Los Angeles Times, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”
There’s at least one downside to the judge’s ruling, though. Per the original copyright claim agreement, one-third of royalties collected from “Happy Birthday to You” go toward the Association for Childhood Education International, a charity that promotes global education efforts for children. In 2012, that charity received $754,000 in royalties, but now stands to lose any future royalties.