A federal judge’s ruling last week that “Happy Birthday to You” is not under copyright, or at least not under one held by publisher Warner/Chappell Music, means that one of the most popular songs in the English language may belong to the public after all. It will be a boon to filmmakers, TV studios and others who have paid an estimated $2 million annually in licensing fees to use the song commercially, even if they’re just depicting people at a birthday party singing it.

Agreeing with the independent filmmakers who sued Warner/Chappell, Judge George H. King ruled that the copyright that the publishing company bought in 1988 covered a piano arrangement of the song, not the lyrics. (The copyright over the melody expired in 1949.)

King’s ruling left unsettled whether someone else out there holds a copyright to the lyrics. If it belongs to the song’s composers, sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, the lyrics would pass into the public domain 70 years after the last sister’s death in 1945. That would free up the lyrics in 2016.

That’s not to say that works should rapidly morph into public property. Copyrights play a vital role in giving people an incentive to create original works, without which there would be no culture.

But in this instance, there is something delicious about a song with the most prosaic of lyrics – and one that is part of an American ritual of celebration – finally belonging to everyone, at least for now. That’s worth singing about.

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