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The Heinous “Happy Birthday” Heist

Or why copyright law so often sucks.

If you caught Nick Park’s “The Wrong Trousers”, a claymotion adventure with Wallace and Gromit and one evil penguin, when it was first shown on TV you may have noticed that when Gromit opens his card at the breakfast table, it plays “Happy Birthday to You”, which is appropriate, since it is Gromit’s birthday after all. If you then watched the re-runs or the DVD version, you may have noticed something strange: When Gromit opens his card, it plays “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”. What happened to his birthday song?

The reason is that “Happy Birthday” is the most profitable song ever rights-wise, and has been under a draconian and merciless copyright for at least a century… Or so everybody thought: A documentary company discovered in 2013 that this is not so and plans to cover the biggest copyright fraud in history with a film about the annoying song.

It turns out the authors of “Happy Birthday” didn’t write the music, or the lyrics, didn’t properly register it, nor did they renew correctly the bogus copyright ownership when it lapsed in the early 20th century. But that didn’t stop Warner/Chappell, a subsidiary of Warner Music, from hoarding the cash from the rights over every recording, birthday card, and broadcasting on radio and TV and persecuting would be infringers, including poor Gromit (or, more precisely, the creators of the short).

In a nice twist, the filmmakers, who had to pay $15,000 to use the song, filed their own suit against Warner/Chappell and demanded all proceedings from the fake copyright be restituted to the people who were charged before them.

Nearly a century charging for something that isn’t yours? If the filmmakers prevail, this is going to add up to A LOT of money.