Singing “Happy Birthday”

“Happy Birthday” has long held a unique place in U.S. culture, a ritual song sung on birthdays that you couldn’t legally perform without a license. The song was covered by a copyright registration from 1935, but everyone knew there was a problem with this situation. Surely such a well-known ritual song was older than that.

Indeed it was. A court has now ruled that the 1935 copyright registration covered a piano arrangement of an existing song of unknown origins. There was no copyright registration for the song itself. The lack of a registration, combined with the age of the song, puts the song in the public domain. You are now free to sing it without a license.

The court did not have to rule on the age of “Happy Birthday” to make its determination, but the best available evidence is that the song originated in the 1880s and that the words were provided spontaneously by an unidentified elementary school student making a variation on an existing song. “Happy Birthday” appeared in movies for years before the copyright registration appeared, and books that refer to the song go back to the turn of the century.

It took barely a generation for “Happy Birthday” to turn into a ritual song, so there is the potential for the same situation to come up again. Current U.S. copyright laws provides copyright protection for potentially as long as 200 years — more than long enough for something like a song to pass from popular culture to folklore and its origins to be forgotten while it is still covered by copyright protection.

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