In the late 19th century, a schoolteacher named Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred Hill composed the first version of a tune that would become internationally famous. In fact, “Happy Birthday” has been cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most recognized song in the English language. Yet, throughout the ensuing years, it’s been under copyright control to the befuddlement of many who don’t understand how something authored so long ago still necessitates a license fee whenever it is publicly performed. Yes, the copyright term is long, but not that long. Right?
A new lawsuit being filed today aims to have “Happy Birthday” declared as belonging to the public domain. The proposed class action is brought by a film company that is working on a documentary about the “Happy Birthday” song. During the making, the producers were informed that they would need to pay a $1,500 synchronization license fee to use the song in the documentary. The producers paid for fear of being liable for up to $150,000 in penalties for copyright infringement.
But now, Good Morning to You Productions Corp. has filed a lawsuit on behalf of all those in film, television and elsewhere who are paying for rights to “Happy Birthday.” The plaintiff aims to force Warner/Chappell Music to return millions of dollars collected over the years for what the lawsuit calls “the world’s most popular song.”
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