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Newly Discovered Songbook May End Happy Birthday Copyright

“Happy Birthday to You” has been a traditional fixture at birthday parties for the better part of the last century, which is why it surprises many people that the song is actually covered by copyright law. While people singing at their family birthday parties probably do not have to worry about a cease and desist letter, the Warner Music Group has been diligently enforcing its copyright against commercial uses of the song since it was registered in 1935. However, that may be about to change.

A recently discovered songbook from 1922 may end up invalidating the copyright in the song. The key to the argument stems from the year of the book’s publication. The way U.S. copyright law has changed over the years means that 1923 is the cutoff date between works that could potentially still be covered by copyright and works where the copyright has expired due to age.

The Story of The Happy Birthday Copyright

The reason the Happy Birthday copyright is such a complex case stems largely from the fact that it was not written in a single sitting, but rather evolved over a period of time that is largely not preserved historically. The original melody was written by two sisters and originally published in 1893. However, at the time it was published it was known as “Good Morning to All,” and had completely different lyrics. Eventually, the song evolved during the early 20th Century, and it was put into a Broadway revue in the 1930s. It was that public use of the song that provoked the registration of the copyright in 1935 of the song in its current form.

Why the Songbook Matters

The recently discovered songbook is so important to the case because of a controversial 1998 change to copyright law. The 1998 Act, known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, was a copyright law update that extended the term of a copyright from the life of the author plus 50 years to the life of the author plus 70 years, adding an extra 20 years to the copyright term. The law also retroactively amended the terms of other copyrighted works made after 1923, adjusting their terms so that the earliest those works would enter the public domain would be 2019. Importantly, this also means works published prior to 1923 are in the public domain.

This key date of 1923 is then why the songbook is so important. It has the full lyrics and melody of Happy Birthday to You published in 1922, the last year that they could be published and still enter the public domain. However, it is not quite that cut and dried. This is because only “authorized” publications trigger the starting date, and Warner has always argued that the first authorized publication was in 1935. The burden will now be on them to prove it, which might be a tall order given the how far in the past this all happened.

Happy Birthday to You is just one example of how copyright law can touch people’s lives in unexpected ways. If you are involved in a copyright dispute and want to know more about your options, talk to a West Palm Beach copyright attorney at Pike & Lustig, LLP today.

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