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This One Page Could End The Copyright War Over 'Happy Birthday'

The birthday song — Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, etc. — is still under copyright protection. If you want to sing the song on TV, or in a restaurant, or whatever, you have to pay a licensing fee to Warner/Chappell, the music company that owns the rights. The company makes about $2 million a year off the song, according to one estimate.

A lawsuit filed in federal court last week seeks to change that. The complaint ( online here) argues that the copyright to the song, if it ever existed at all, "expired no later than 1921." Warner/Chappell hasn't responded to the suit yet; I left them a message this morning asking for comment, but I haven't heard back.

The story of the song is long and weirdly complex. The short version is: A pair of sisters published a song called "Good Morning to You" in 1893. Over the next few decades, the song morphed into "Happy Birthday to You." In the 1920s and '30s, a couple versions of the birthday song were published in copyrighted songbooks.

But Happy Birthday to You was in wide circulation for years before it was published and copyrighted, and it's not clear who wrote that version of the song, according to Mark Rifkin, one of the lawyers who filed the suit. (The plaintiff is a filmmaker who's making a documentary about the song.)

The complaint goes through the history of the song in excruciating detail. One key detail: The complaint says the lyrics were published by the Board of Sunday Schools of the Methodist Episcopal Church in a 1911 book, long before copyrighted versions of the song appeared. Here's the key page:

For more: a recent (pre-lawsuit) episode of On the Media had a good overview of the history of the song; this Reuters story has more on the details of the lawsuit. And see our recent story, When Patents Attack ... Part Two!

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.