The most recognized song in the English language was ruled part of the public domain by District Judge George H. King on September 22. “Happy Birthday to You” has been sung by millions of people for over 100 years, and the tune of the song even longer, dating to at least 1893. Even though it’s a song that pretty much everybody knows, it has been under copyright since 1935.
The original tune, composed by sisters Patty and Mildred J. Hill, may have been copied from even earlier tunes, though the history before their composition is unknown. Originally imagined as “Good Morning to You” by the Hill sisters, it was composed for schoolchildren as Patty was a kindergarten teacher and Mildred a music composer.
In 1935 the Summy Company, led by Preston Orem Ware and R.R. Forman, copyrighted the song and created the Birch Tree Group Limited in order to protect it. Birch Tree was acquired by Warner/Chappell Music in 1988, along with the rights to the song. Under United States copyright law, works created before 1978 can have a copyright for up to 95 years after the initial copyright publication date.
The wrench in the works is that the people who filed the copyright were not the creators of the song, and the song is pretty clearly used without regard to copyright protection by millions of people every year. In fact, the earliest known usage of the song with both the the lyrics and the tune is 1922, well before the 1935 filing. Additionally, under European copyright rules the protections expire 70 years after the death of the creators, in this case the Hill sisters, who died in 1946. That means it will pass into the public domain at the end of 2016 across the pond.
In 2013, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson of Good Morning to You Productions was doing a piece on the song and was irked when she found she had paid $1,500 for the rights to use the song and, upon learning the history of the song, believed this to be wrong. She filed a complaint with the courts and when other similar cases were filed they were joined into a single class action lawsuit.
The culmination of that lawsuit has finally been decided, and it seems the judge believes that Summy in 1935, and by extension Warner/Chappell, never actually had a valid copyright claim in the first place. That means that the nearly $2 million per year that the company now collects from filmmakers and others for use of the song has now evaporated. King says in his ruling that the copyright should have expired in 1949 at the latest, making nearly 70 years of royalty payments suspect.
As for the rest of society, it mostly just means that when you go down to the local mid-level family restaurant they will now be able to sing the most widely recognized, and highest earning, song of all time instead of those dopey ones with all the clapping they make up when giving you your free slice of pie.