Happy Birthday copyright, birthday cake
The final notes may be sung on a 3-year-old case involving one of the most profitable copyrights that everyone knows by heart. For those who aren’t familiar, licensing fees and royalties can garner a pretty profit for copyright holders. Some of the most profitable songs may surprise you. The top five songs combined have garnered over 150 million dollars for their copyright holders. Do you know what the most profitable songs in recent history are?
It is no surprise that many of the songs on the list are incredibly well known. These songs garner royalty fees when played by a “profit-making enterprise”. What does that mean? Well, in short it means when it is used by a business or entity in a way that relates to making money, in some fashion. An advertisement using the song in the background to sell cars, a sporting venue using the song to entertain in between the action, or even a movie using a popular song to set a scene. In all of these instances, users are required to get the permission of the copyright holder in order to use the song even if it is only for an instance. “Unchained Melody” by Alex North and Hy Zaret  ranks number 5 with an estimated earnings of $27.5 million dollars. John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s, “Yesterday”, comes in fourth with an estimated 30 million in earnings. The number three spot belongs to Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Specter with their 1964 hit, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”; earning approximately 32 million dollars. Irving Berlin’s holiday classic takes number two with “White Christmas” with a very green estimated earnings of 36 million dollars.

The Happy Birthday Copyright

Happy Birthday copyright Law Offices of Zachary Hiller Houston, TX

The Happy Birthday song is now part of the public domain.

The number one royalty earner may come as a surprise to many although, it is safe  to assume that everyone knows the song. It is the “Happy Birthday” song and it has been the subject of a lawsuit for three years in part due to the high value of its royalties, an estimated $50 million. While the average person was unlikely to feel the weight of the songs’ copyright when they blow out their candles, corporations most certainly did. Have you ever noticed that the song that is sung at popular chain restaurants is never the happy birthday song?   Yes, even restaurant chains were not exempt from the reach of the happy birthday copyright, originally written by the Hill sisters in 1893.  The actual copyright for the song had been passed and purchased several times before becoming the property of music publishers Warner/Chappell in 1988 where it earned an average of two million dollars a year for the company. In one famous instance, the birthday song was used in the independent film, “Hoop Dreams”, at a cost of $5,000 for nine seconds of air time.
In 2013, several filmmakers took the publishing house to court. The case centered on the premise that the Hill sisters originally wrote the song “Good Morning To All” which had different lyrics than the birthday song. The court ultimately invalidated the copyright stating that the original copyright did not include the birthday lyrics and therefore, could not enforce the copyright on the “Happy Birthday” song. Warner/Chappell has agreed to a $14 million dollar settlement to pay back the royalties it earned in past claims. This case is viewed to be a landmark case, returning the “Happy Birthday” song to the public domain. It also highlights the nuance of a copyright. It is important to ensure that every aspect of your copyright is analyzed and assessed for any loopholes. In this case, it is a $14 million dollar loophole for Warner/Chappell and a happy day for filmmakers, television producers and chain restaurants. I wonder if they know a song to sing to celebrate?
If you have copyright questions or concerns, contact the law firm of Zachary Hiller today.

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