Sing “Happy Birthday to You” in public and you may be singing to the judge. It is even more likely that you will face legal problems if you are making a buck off the event. For example, you bake cupcakes. Out you come with candles flaming and you strike up that old familiar tune. Someone wants to get paid.
Here is the reason: it is copyrighted. The current owner is Time Warner and it rakes in an estimated $2 million dollars a year just from that song.
Artists own their work. They can license it, sell it and even give it away. This falls under copyright law. The rights usually last from 75 to 90 years. In the case of “Happy Birthday to You” it was created by 2 sisters in the 1800s but not copyrighted until the mid-1930s. Bottom-line is that the copyright still has a few years to go.
Perhaps the most famous case of trying to get money for “Happy Birthday to You” was when the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) went after the Girl Scouts for singing the song at campouts. The matter was later dropped after a lot of bad publicity. Those Girl Scouts can be tough.
But you can bet any time it appears in a movie or on a reality TV show, someone is paying up.
This also explains why in so many restaurants, they sing their own silly birthday song. That is right. They don’t want to pay.
Now don’t drop the song from your family’s list of traditions just yet. You are allowed to sing the song in your home. Just don’t put it on YouTube and expect to make a few pennies. You just might end up with your own command performance … in court.