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Jul 31 / Geoffrey Nathan

Happy Birthday to You–Maybe you can sing it after all

Some folks may have heard the claim that the song ‘Happy Birthday’ is copyrighted, and you’re supposed to pay royalties if you ‘perform’ it. Certainly when restaurants used to have their staff gather round customers and sing birthday greetings there was a time when they sang other songs, because some restaurant or other had been sued for copyright violation.

If you don’t believe it, you can check Snopes, the famous myth debunking website and they confirm that this is true.

Interestingly enough, someone is challenging this claim, and the case was written up recently by a web buddy of mine on the Volokh Conspiracy blog, which I read fairly regularly. It’s a classic case of ‘Copyright Trolling’–the people who are claiming the copyright have no relation to the folks who wrote the song (which wasn’t ‘Happy Birthday to You’ in its original lyrics in any case)–the authors fumbled the copyright, but someone picked it up and their catalog was bought by someone who bought it, and it was subsequently sold to someone else and so on.

This case will be fun to watch–it’s still ongoing.

Strange twist–the original authors, a pair of schoolteacher sisters named ‘Hill’ were the aunts of a famous linguist of the mid twentieth century named Archibald Hill, who I once met. Apparently he was independently wealthy because the sisters left their estate to him. You never know…

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