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Why don't restaurants sing the 'Happy Birthday' song?

Unless you're a regular follower of our blog, then you probably are only vaguely familiar with how copyright law works when it comes to songs. For those who do not know, the writer of a song can obtain a copyright of their work once it is fixed into a medium such as a recording or even if it has been written down on paper.

A copyright gives an artist the expressed right to use the song however they want, including licensing it to others so that they may use it. It even provides clout for the artist in the event someone tries to infringe on the copyright somehow and the artist needs to take legal action. But one case shows how challenging this can be, especially if it's not entirely clear if you own the copyright you think you have.

As some of our Los Angeles readers know, a challenging case went before the U.S. Central District Court of California that begged the question: who owns the rights to the song "Happy Birthday to You?" While the defendants of the case, Warner/Chappel Music, claims that it has the copyright and will until 2030 because of copyright extensions, the plaintiffs of the case argue the song is public domain because the copyright "expired no later than 1921."

As of March of this year, Judge George King had not ruled on the case, which could have a significant impact on restaurants nationwide if King rules in favor of the plaintiffs.

At present time, because Warner/Chappel Music claims to own the copyright to the "Happy Birthday" song, restaurants must purchase a license in order to sing it. That's because singing the song to unsuspecting diners is considered a public performance, which entitles the copyright owner to royalties. Failing to secure a license could resort in legal recourse.

Because obtaining a license for a song can be expensive -- and because dealing with litigation can be challenging and sometimes incredibly extensive -- most restaurants have chosen instead to make up their own songs rather than use the more than 100-year-old song. But if King rules in favor of the plaintiffs though, and "Happy Birthday to You" becomes public domain, restaurants across the nation could begin using the tune without fear of litigation -- that is until someone else purchases the copyright again.

Sources: CBS News, "The legal brawl over 'Happy Birthday To You'," Jonathan Berr, March 27, 2015

Snopes.com, "Happy Birthday, We'll Sue," Feb. 9, 2015

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