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For a song as iconic as "Happy Birthday," the rights issues behind its usage in films have been as confusing as any flow chart explaining which Marvel characters belong to which studio. But no matter how you sliced it, before today you couldn't use that famous song of songs to commemorate a fictional character's birthday without paying.
Times have changed. Variety broke the news that after decades of the lyrics being copyrighted by private companies, the most recent being Warner / Chappell Music, "Happy Birthday To You" is officially a part of the public domain. This means that anyone can sing the lyrics to "Happy Birthday" in a film, and not have to spend one red cent on either the rights to the song, or on songwriters to create a new substitute. Considering the tune to "Happy Birthday" has been in public domain since 1949, this is a pretty big step for the 122 year old song.
The next, and just as interesting, step in the proceedings is to determine whether Warner / Chappell Music actually needs to repay those they've collected fees to use the song. Since the company didn't buy the rights so much as they bought the company that spawned from the original company that had the rights to the lyrics, there's a good chance that Warner / Chappell could have to reimburse those who've use the tune – lyrics and all – since the company's acquisition in 1998.
While this is a pretty big victory for those who love to write birthday scenes into their films, it's also kind of sad when you think about it. Remember this "birthday" scene from The Emperor's New Groove?
This scene would have played out a lot differently if the actual Happy Birthday song were available. It might be a weird reason, but to allow "Happy Birthday" to slip into the public domain does reduce the likelihood of writers creating their own spin on the tradition of singing a person into their next year of live. Which means that the fun you saw above is more so at the discretion of the person making the film as opposed to the older copyright ruling pertaining to the song.
With birthday scenes at the movies poised to change forever, now that more films can use the traditional "Happy Birthday" theme song, it will be interesting to see how many projects decide to stick to the classics – as opposed to writing their own birthday song. Just remember folks: while the genuine article lends an air of authenticity, that shouldn't get in the way of your inner creativity.