It’s Illegal to Sing Happy Birthday?


Some years ago, Aaron Sorkin (bar none the greatest television writer of all time) spent a few minutes of an episode of Sports Night making light of the fact that the song “Happy Birthday” is outside the public domain. Onscreen, his characters quipped:

Dan: I’ve got the intellectual property cops crawling up my butt.

Isaac: The intellectual property cops?

Dan: I sang happy birthday to Casey on air.

Isaac: When?

Dan: Well, on his birthday, Isaac…

Isaac: Someone holds the copyright to “Happy Birthday”?

Dan: The representatives of Patty and Mildred Hill.

Isaac: Took two people to write that song?

In fact, it apparently took four people to write that song. While the Hill sisters are credited with writing the melody to “Happy Birthday,” two different authors, Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman, were credited when a copyright on the song was first registered in 1935. Now, however, a group of plaintiffs is citing the fact that the song was published in 1922 sans copyright in arguing that the song is in the public domain.

Big Dollars at Stake

Warner Music Group currently owns the copyright to “Happy Birthday,” having purchased the company that registered the copyright in 1988. At the time, the “Happy Birthday” copyright alone was valued at $5 million. That figure would certainly be higher today, so Warner has a great deal at stake in this litigation.

We Could Be Singing Any Day Now

We may not have to wait long to learn the fate of “Happy Birthday.” Cross-motions for summary judgment are now pending before the District Court, which could rule on the motions with or without further hearings. While you wait, enjoy more fun banter from Sorkin on the topic: