Until last week (September 22, 2015), the song "Happy Birthday" was protected by copyright in the United States. That meant that any time the song was song, the copyright owners were owed royalties. Ever wonder why you've never heard "Happy Birthday" on television, despite sitting through hundreds of birthday episodes? Anytime the song was sung or played in public, Warner/Chappell, the copyright owners, would demand royalties.
Warner/Chappell, a publishing division of Warner Music, had been aggressively enforcing the copyright to the ubiquitous birthday song since 1988, when it acquired the company responsible for the original copyright. Some sources estimate that royalties for that song along bring in nearly $2 million per year, and a Warner/Chappell representative told a judge royalties can be as high as "six figures" for permission to use the song.
The issue found its way before the courts when a number of plaintiffs sued Warner Music, claiming that the company did not have a valid copyright. One of those plaintiffs was filmmaker Jennifer Nelson, who wanted to use the song in a documentary she and her production company were making, about the song's history. Nelson was told she would have to pay $1,500 or face fines for unauthorized use.
A federal court judge agreed with Nelson, and ruled that Warner Music does "not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics". Attorney Randall Newman said that the ruling has set the song "free after 80 years". Nelson said the decision was a "great victory for musicians, artists, and people around the world who have waited decades for this". Warner Music has said that they are "considering [their] options" and may appeal. Another attorney for Nelson, Mark C. Rifkin, said that the next step will be to initiate a class-action lawsuit against Warner Music, to recover royalties paid to the company for use of the song going back to "at least" 1988.