Happy Birthday to You! and the Accidental Copyright Case

Birthday candles

Photo By Joey Gannon (Source: Wikimedia)

You can thank a copyright law professor at George Washington University the next time you hear a birthday song being sung to the table beside you at a restaurant, or in a movie, and it sounds much more like the one you sing at home. Robert Brauneis published a paper in the Journal of the Copyright Society of the U.S.A. back in 2009 entitled “Copyright and the World’s Most Popular Song”, which outlined a rationale for why Warner/Chappell may not have had the copyright to the Happy Birthday song that it claimed to have. The paper, first uploaded to SSRN in 2006, went relatively unnoticed for years until documentarian Jennifer Nelson began researching a film on the history of the song Happy Birthday to You!, and stumbled upon the Brauneis paper during her research. Nelson claims that up until this point, the project was merely to create a documentary on the song. She did not intend to become involved in taking down one of the most notorious copyright claims in US history. As for Brauneis, neither did he. A true nexus of unintended consequences.

The case is of special interest this week as Nelson’s 2013 class action lawsuit against Warner/Chappell over the fees paid to it through the years for the song’s use was settled on December 8th, vacating the trial over the fees that was set to begin today.

You can read Brauneis’ paper at its SSRN link here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1111624

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