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The Tangled History And Mysterious Legality Of “Happy Birthday”

Learn more about the Schrödinger’s Cat of the public domain: We may never know what’s in the box.

The headlines on Tuesday and Wednesday blared, “Happy Birthday found to be in the public domain.” Unfortunately and confusingly, they were incorrect. A judge’s ruling in a suit filed two years against the ostensible current rights holders for the lyrics to that song, Warner-Chappell Music, didn’t decide that. Instead, the judge found that Warner-Chappell lacked valid rights to the lyrics, whether or not they remained under copyright protection, even as it collected fees to the tune of $2 million a year.

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