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Should the ‘Happy Birthday’ song be subject to copyright law?

Happy People at a Birthday Party

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Whenever you hear the Happy Birthday Song – yes, that Happy Birthday Song – in a movie or television show, it is because the filmmakers have paid a $1,500 fee and entered into a license agreement with Warner/Chappell.

This works out to roughly $150 per second (depending on how fast the song is sung).

Hardly cause for celebration – unless you're Warner/Chappell (a publishing division of Warner Music Group), which has, by one one estimate, collected $2-million per year in fees since 1988.

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Now, Jennifer Nelson, a New York-based filmmaker who set out to make a documentary on the song, has now filed a federal lawsuit against Warner/Chappell.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, her goal is to make Happy Birthday to You available in the public domain.

While her company, Good Morning to You Productions, paid the fee in order to use the song, she told The New York Times via email that she "never thought the song was owned by anyone" until she entered into filmmaking.

Not paying for the song, meanwhile, would have resulted in penalties upwards of $150,000.

Happy Birthday to You dates back to the late 1800s when Patty Smith Hill and Mildred J. Hill composed the familiar melody set to the lyrics, "Good Morning to All." Since then, its ownership and usage have raised all sorts of issues, largely owing to copyright law.

But one of Nelson's lawyers explained to the New York Times that the song has evolved by "public adaptation" and consequently, belongs to the public.

Certainly, the song is as public as songs come. The Guinness Book of World Records cites the ditty as "the most recognized song in the English language." It's one of the few songs that anyone can sing by memory (it has, oh, all of four words) and is applicable to an occasion shared by every human being. That one company can profit so substantially from its usage seems unnecessarily mercenary, no? At very least, it could offer to donate the money to a children's aid organization.

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Salon's coverage of the lawsuit notes that, "If the copyright is lifted, the Warner/Chappell Music Group could be required to pay millions in licensing fees it's collected over the years."

So here's hoping Nelson gets her wish. It would be a welcome gift for many.

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