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“Happy Birthday to You,” Says District Court

An iconic popular song joined the public domain this week after a U.S. District Court ruled that the song “Happy Birthday to You” may be sung freely. The copyright in the song, which has been held since 1988 by the Warner Music Group, extends only to particular piano arrangements of the tune, according to the ruling.

Warner routinely charged licensing fees for use of the song, especially in television and film, despite the fact that claims to copyright in “Happy Birthday” have raised eyebrows for some time. The plaintiffs in this case sought a ruling that Warner does not own a copyright in the “Happy Birthday” lyrics, based in part on recently-surfaced evidence that the lyrics were first published in 1922, and without a copyright notice—enough to bring them within the public domain.

We’re all for copyright protection, but within limits. Warner’s exploitation of its questionable copyright stretched those limits. As we wrote when first reporting on this case,

[s]uch overreaching claims of ownership give copyright a bad name. Copyright law exists to spur the production of new works and to make sure creators are compensated for those works when the free market values them; its misuse only provides more fodder for those who seek to undermine copyright.

This week’s sensible decision will curb similar misuse in the future, we hope, while also freeing a cultural touchstone for use by the next generation of creators.