OK, relax, it is legally safe to sing Happy Birthday without paying the copyright fees, you are safe, as long as you you sing this song in your home, or even at your office, since neither setting would constitute a “public performance” for copyright purposes.
There are many who believe that Warner/Chappell should not still be collecting licensing fees for the song, and this largely shared sentiment led to the recent filing of a class action lawsuit in a New York court. In this case, Good Morning to You Productions Inc. v. Warner/Chappell Music, a New York filmmaker disputes the $1,500 she was charged to use the song in her documentary, because she alleges that the song has crossed into the public domain, and it can be freely used by anyone.
Of note: A work of authorship is said to have crossed into the “public domain” if the term of copyright protection has expired or it has failed to meet the requirements to attain copyright protection. The term of copyright protection lasts the life of the author plus 70 years or 95 years in the case of a copyright owned by a corporation. Works in the public domain can be used without permission or payment of a licensing fee.
So, until this case is resolved, how will you know whether you need to pay a fee to sing “Happy Birthday to You”? Will you be sued for copyright infringement if you don’t license the right to use and sing the song? The answer to that question is likely “no,” especially if you are singing the song in the privacy of your home.
Good Morning to You Productions Inc. v. Warner/Chappell Music presents other interesting and complex copyright law issues that we won’t delve into here. We just wanted you to be aware of how copyright law can affect our everyday lives, and things that you typically don’t give much thought to – like singing “Happy Birthday To You,” may actually make you stop and think now. It may be quite some time before this case is resolved, but we will be sure to update you when that happens.