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Could Warner/Chappell End Up Singing the Birthday Blues?

By Todd Marcum

As an ad agency, we have to be pretty diligent about copyright infringement and terms and conditions. Even a small mistake could create a legal nightmare. As we have many August birthdays coming up for our staff, we have always been careful about singing the traditional “Happy Birthday to You,” because it is a property held by giant Warner/Chappell. You want to sing “Happy Birthday to You” in a public setting, you have to pay a royalty or risk the legal wrath of a huge corporation.

That’s why the wait staff always does a different birthday song when you are at Golden Corral and someone says, “Hey, it’s Anthony’s birthday.”

Here at Access, we generally do a ska/speed metal version of a birthday song with Chris Henson accompanying on the accordion, but I digress.

A documentary maker has brought suit against Warner/Chappell claiming that the music has been in public domain for years and that the company should return all the royalties it has received through the years. This has been worming its way through the courts for about a year now, but only came to my attention when a stack of birthday cards landed on my desk after I returned from vacation. If you are the kind of person who gets their jollies reading details of a lawsuit, here you go.

It’s an interesting case and at the end of the day, we all probably root for the little guy (documentary maker) versus the big guy (multi-national company). When this finally resolves, probably long after I have stopped counting birthdays, it will be interesting, if only from a scholarly perspective as the case is rather specific. But if you get busted having your birthday in a popular chain restaurant, you may get to be serenaded by the sweet tones of the traditional “Happy Birthday.” In the meantime, you’ll just have to enjoy your complimentary piece of birthday cake to alternative tunes like these:

 Chuck E. Cheese Happy Birthday

Shoney’s Birthday

Chili’s Happy Birthday

Disney Happy Birthday

And, of course, the worst restaurant ‘Happy Birthday Song’ ever

Topics: Agency Life, Advertising