The many weird ways TV and film have avoided expensive "Happy Birthday" copyright fees

A new ruling from the United States District Court in Los Angeles states the copyright protecting “Happy Birthday to You,” perhaps the most heavily protected song, was never actually valid.

Judge George H. King made the ruling, the New York Times reports. If it stands, TV shows and movies will no longer have to pay the ridiculously high licensing fees — sometimes as much as $US30,000 per use — just to include the song in an episode or film. 

Since most shows don’t want to pony up that kind of dough, they have had to find creative ways around the popular song. 

From the Three Stooges’ classic rendition to a bit of clever dialogue in Disney’s “iCarly,” here are some of the best:

The owner of the copyright, music publisher Warner/Chappell, reportedly earns $US2 million in licensing fees from TV shows and movies that do pay for the rights to the song, the Times reports.

The debacle goes all the way back to 1893, when sisters Mildred and Patty Hill first published the song “Good Morning To All.” At the time, the copyright was registered by the Clayton F. Summy Company. Over the ensuing decades, the song’s lyrics changed to “Happy Birthday to You,” and it was that version Summy registered in 1935.

Warner/Chappell then purchased the rights in 1988.

In the recent ruling, however, Judge King decided the adaptation, whose authorship was unknown, didn’t come with the original copyright from “Good Morning to All,” and thus, Warner/Chappell’s purchase of the copyright was also invalid.

A spokesperson from Warner/Chappell told the Times the company was “considering our options,” but if it stands, awkwardly evasive renditions of “Happy Birthday to You” could be a relic of a bygone era.

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