Happy Birthday to Who?

For the last 27 years if that song was sung, recorded or performed Warner Chappell the music publishers collected the royalties for it - running to an estimated income of $2m a year.

Today is someone's birthday. Tomorrow is someone's birthday. The day after is someone else's birthday. Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday dear so-and-so happy birthday to you.

For the last 27 years if that song was sung, recorded or performed Warner Chappell the music publishers collected the royalties for it - running to an estimated income of $2m a year.

Sadly for Warner Chappell today a judge George King in the US has ruled, that the publisher only has the copyright for one version of the song and does not have the right to collect income on all performances and recordings. Not such a happy day for them. The ensuing task of paying back at least $54m to everyone that the money has been collected from over nearly three decades is a colossal one. Imagine all of the major events and public performances that Happy Birthday has been sung at and you only start to comprehend how big that could be.

Having said that Copyright law and publishing is probably one of the areas that I would recommend any aspiring students thinking of a career in the music industry to focus on. As the digital landscape continues to develop, the way music is shared, sync'd and used as a canvas to sell products and illustrate movies, adverts and television dramas, is changing at lightening speed. However this does also mean that copyright and ownership of music rights is an ever more tangled mess. With seemingly no one having a clue! As veteran broadcaster Danny Baker succinctly tweeted on hearing today's news, "BBC reporting that Happy Birthday is no longer a copyrighted song. Thus joining every other bit of music on the planet right now."

"Where there's a hit there's a writ" they used to say and I don't see that changing much anytime soon. Processes should in theory be getting easier - we all have digital footprints and music is no different, each song on iTunes is loaded with digital information, Metadata they call it and each song has an ISRC code, uniquely identifying it wherever it is played or used. So why is there always such a grey mist around publishing? I suspect the main problem with music publishing is that it seems so convoluted and complicated. Perhaps on purpose, to mystify and baffle the lowly musician and artist - when their song gets played every day on prime time tv in Japan or the US and they receive the square root of 0 (+/- 5%) in their biannual statements.

One company who are doing their best to de-clutter it all is Kobalt Music Publishing who it seems artists and producers are turning to in their droves - and for good reason. They offer a great service and are fully transparent with a client facing portal which users can use to see exactly where their songs have been played, where the income is coming from and even download money on any day of the week, rather than having to wait six months to get paid. Sure, this system means the majority of their signings don't get a huge advance, that's just not their model, but for the most part, their clients receive money when it's due and can see what's going on with their works. There are some great publishers out there who really do work hard to get their writers more work, pitching for syncs and top-line assignments and generating co-writes and therefore hits. Notting Hill Publishing and Imagem immediately spring to mind as among the best.

Happy Birthday was written in Louisville somewhere before 1893 by two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill and was popularised when it was used in a scene in a new 1930's Irving Berlin broadway musical 'As Thousands Cheer'. Such humble beginnings for a piece of music that is not only knitted into the fabric of society, but into everyone's lives. So, I guess this calls into question, finally..... If Warner Chappell no longer owns it as it drifts back into the public domain, who does?


What's Hot