Did you know that Warner Bros. currently owns the rights to the song “Happy Birthday to You”? What about the fact that it costs $1,500 to feature the song just once in a film? Documentarian Jennifer Nelson, who is currently making a documentary about the history of “Happy Birthday to You,” didn’t realize either of those facts when she started making her film, and has now filed a $50 million lawsuit against Warner Bros. over the song rights.
“Before I began my filmmaking career, I never thought the song was owned by anyone. I thought it belonged to everyone,” Nelson tells The New York Times. Her goal is to have the song be declared public domain.
Back in 1988, Warner Bros. paid $25 million to purchase the rights to “Happy Birthday” from Birchtree Ltd. It’s estimated that the company makes $2 million per year in licensing fees from the song. Nelson’s lawsuit notes that “Happy Birthday” was written by sisters Mildred J. Hill and Patty Smith Hill in the late 1800s and sung to the tune of “Good Morning to All,” and thus is just a “public adaptation” of the original song.
“It’s a song created by the public, it belongs to the public, and it needs to go back to the public,” one of Nelson’s lawyers tells the Times.