‘Happy Birthday’ is the most popular song in the English language, yet up until recently, it did not belong to the public domain. For decades the cheerful tune could not be used freely in films and all sorts of other media, as Warner Music had claimed the rights to it.
Since the late 80s, Warner Music had claimed they owned the rights to the popular birthday song. They insisted that anyone using the song for profit had to pay the company royalties. In 2008 they were making around $5000 (US dollars) a day for the use of ‘Happy Birthday’ in general media.
However, in the European Union copyrights to music expire 70 years after the passing of the original writer. So on the first day of 2017, seventy years after the passing of Patty Hill, the song was set free in Europe. Earlier in 2016, the US court ruled that Warner Music’s right to the music was invalid, thus ending their capture of the song.
Warner Music’s reign over the song did lead to some comical events though, like this scene from New Zealand film Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Upon filming Ricky’s birthday scene, the crew found out they did not have the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ song, so an alternative had to be quickly improvised.