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Noah Feldman

'Happy Birthday' to All, Except for the Lawyers

Copyright claims on the lyrics to a ubiquitous song were pretty flimsy.
It's your party. Sing if you want to.

It's your party. Sing if you want to.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Happy Birthday” has been freed from its copyright shackles: Rejoice! But don’t rejoice too much. The federal district court in California that invalidated Warner/Chappell Music’s claim to own the lyrics didn’t rely on the logic you might imagine, namely that the words are as much a part of the public domain as, well, the phrase “Happy Birthday.”

The court’s narrow decision, released last week, resulted from an incredibly detailed, legally arcane analysis of whether the alleged owner before Warner actually acquired rights to the lyrics alongside the rights to the music, which have since lapsed. The court seems to have reached the right result, but it hasn’t struck a blow for the freedom of song.