“Happy birthday” song becomes free: a classic for free

For years, there was a dispute about the "Happy Birthday" license. Now the song is in the public domain. But there are now several alternatives.

And balloons to go with it Photo: claudiarndt/photocase

It is the birthday song par excellence: "Happy Birthday". Simple lyrics, catchy melody, anyone can sing along. Those who want to publish the song afterwards, however, could get the "Happy" stuck in their throats – because the publication costs. And not just a little, but according to media reports, up to 10,000 US dollars. The money then ends up in the account of the music publisher Warner/Chappell. For decades, the publisher has taken in around 50 million US dollars in royalties – without being entitled to do so, as a court confirmed in February.

In another court hearing on Monday, a U.S. court now finally decided what the plaintiffs already demanded about three years ago: Warner/Chappell must surrender the rights and pay, according to news portal Heise.de. This will cost the publisher a total of around 14 million dollars, plus its own legal fees. 4.62 million dollars will go to the plaintiffs. The remaining $9.38 million will be put into a fund to compensate those who paid royalties after September 3, 1949, including to foreign collecting societies such as Gema. And: "Happy Birthday" will become public domain, so in the future it may also be sung happily and, above all, free of charge in films and series.

"Stop, not PD!"

A pity, actually, because this means that it is no longer absolutely necessary to use free alternatives. Of those that already exist, some are even more creative and amusing than the original. However, the second most popular English-language birthday song is heard particularly often in films: "For he’s a jolly good Fellow" has long belonged to the general public and may therefore be performed free of charge. Like in the film comedy "Some like it Hot", for example. Of course, the whole thing can also be performed in Klingon.

If you don’t like the classics, you can come up with your own. Especially in English-language productions you can hear original compositions again and again: For example, 8-year-old Jimmy gets a more or less nice birthday serenade in the US-American comedy "Waiting…". On How I Met Your Mother, there’s a very personal song, and in an episode of the youth series "iCarly," the creators even take aim at the "Happy Birthday" controversy themselves. When someone wants to start singing the song, another one shouts: "Stop, not PD", which means "this is not public domain", which means it is not royalty-free. So the group, unnerved, sings another song.

German series probably have it a bit easier. Here, after all, there is Rolf Zuckowski, who has provided us with "wie schon dass du geboren bist" as a popular replacement.

And yet none of these placeholders can really hold their own against the worldwide favorite "Happy Birthday" in real life. In the future, the English-language hit will probably reappear more often on TV screens and movie screens, reaching more people than just ten kids at a children’s birthday party.

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