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Burriss on Media: Happy Birthday


MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (BURRISS)  --  Every once in a while we need to step back from doom and gloom, coups and catastrophes, floods, fires and famines, and deal with something really, really important. And today that's a lawsuit involving the song "Happy Birthday."

It seems that Warner/Chappell Music owns the copyright to the 120-year old song, which means that anyone who publicly performs the song could face a $150,000 fine if they don't agree to pay a fee to the music group. That's why you rarely hear the song being performed in restaurants, on television or in movies. And how much is the fee? Well, for a feature film the cost could be as much as $30-thousand. So Warner/Chappel is making millions of dollars a year on the 16-word song.

But now Good Morning to You Productions has filed a lawsuit against Warner/Chappel, asking that the millions of dollars the company has collected be returned, and that its own fee of $1,500 to use the song in a documentary be refunded.

Because of various sales and licensing transactions since the song was written in 1893, there is some confusion about what exactly is still copyrighted: the words themselves, the melody, or a 1935 piano version.

We should note here that singing "Happy Birthday" at a party in your home is not considered a "public performance," and is thus are specifically exempt from the licensing fee. But if you sing the song at a private party in a local restaurant, it is considered a public performance, and you could be forced to pay up.

Now let's be realistic here: Warner/Chappel is not going to come after you or your 6-year-old if have a Happy Birthday sing-a-long at a local park. But it might be helpful to remember that back in 1996 ASCAP threatened to sue the Girl Scouts for singing campfire songs during summer camp. The resulting public relations nightmare forced a hasty retreat.

But then again, with all of those millions of dollars at stake, maybe we need to wonder which big brother is watching us today.

I'm Larry Burriss