ruddStick around until the lights come up after any movie in which characters sing “Happy Birthday to You” (and there are probably a dozen of those every year), and one of the last credits you see will be a copyright notice for that song, noting that it was used with the permission of Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.  Warner traces its claim to the copyright in “the world’s most popular song” to some piano arrangements of it that were first published in 1935, a claim which, if valid, will not expire until 2030, thanks to various copyright term extensions. Warner’s permission to use the song in movies and other commercial settings does not come cheap.


A few years ago, George Washington University Law Professor Robert Brauneis published a magisterial article entitled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song” (available here) which makes a strong case  that, notwithstanding Warner’s highly lucrative and longstanding income stream from “Happy Birthday,” the song in fact is in the public domain, copyright protection having  been forfeited either before the 1935 publications (it is well documented that the song as we know it had already been around for several decades by then) or as the result of a subsequent failure to properly renew the copyright in 1962. It is a fascinating window into the business of music in the United States.

Armed with Professor Brauneis’s formidable scholarship, the producers of a forthcoming documentary about “Happy Birthday to You” have filed a class action law suit against Warner, seeking a declaratory judgment that its copyright is invalid and the refund of millions of dollars in licensing fees collected over the past several years. We will watch this one closely.

Yet to be heard from is the knucklehead who first added the off-key coda “. . . and many more.”

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO GO FREE? | Express Written Dissent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Recent Posts

  • Unfair to Genius

    Unfair to Genius is an enlightening and entertaining romp through 60 tumultuous years of legal, artistic, and economic change in the American popular music industry, as seen through the lens of one of its most prolific copyright litigants and legendary outsiders, Ira B. Arnstein. "I suppose we have to take the bad with the good in our system which gives everyone their day in court," Irving Berlin once said, but "Arnstein is stretching his day into a lifetime."

    "Rosen paints a fascinating portrait of one of history's most fertile creative eras--the rise of Tin Pan Alley, or the 'Age of the Songwriter' as Rosen calls it--and the book brims with history relevant to today's disruptive technology climate."

    -Publishers Weekly

    "There's fun to be found in 'Unfair to Genius' as it leavens legal history with showbiz anecdote, and insight with amusement."

    -The Wall Street Journal

    “Superbly researched and written . . . Rosen deftly plots the rise of the music industry in America."


  • Categories

  • Gary A. Rosen

    Gary A. Rosen, a lawyer, has litigated copyright, patent, and other intellectual property cases for more than 25 years, and is a Lecturer in Legal Studies at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Before entering private practice, he served as a law clerk to federal appellate judge and award-winning legal historian A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr. He holds a degree in physics from Haverford College and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan Law School. He and his wife Lisa, a physician, and their two children live outside Philadelphia.
  • Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: