The song we know as “Happy Birthday to You” has a dark and muddled history. In 1893, a handwritten and possibly tea-stained manuscript for sheet music included the song “Good Morning to All.” The song was first published in 1893 in the possibly haunted “Song Stories for Kindergarten.” Later, perhaps in a frantic attempt to save our cursed souls, the catchy lyrics of “Happy Birthday” were woven into the song’s melody.
Yet according to U.S. District Judge George H. King’s Tuesday ruling, all this time Summy Co. acquired the rights to the song’s spooky melody, but never any rights to the happy-go-lucky lyrics. Since Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the lyrics in 1935, that means their successor, Warner/Chappell, doesn’t own a valid copyright to the lyrics, just the melody and piano arrangements based on the melody.
We’re halfway there to birthday song freedom. What you do with this new power is on you.
[Correction: According to page 10 of Judge King’s decision: “...both Parties agree that the Happy Birthday melody was borrowed from Good Morning and entered the public domain a long time ago. The Parties disagree only about the status of the Happy Birthday lyrics.” We’re actually at total birthday song freedom.]
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