This story is over 5 years old.


Is This the End of The Chain Restaurant Birthday Song?

A recent California court ruling is a big win for public domain but a big blow to the time-honored American tradition of branded birthdays songs.
Photo via Flickr user Will Clayton

In what is being praised as a big win for public domain and intellectual property, a California judge has ruled that Warner/Chappell Music can no longer charge money for the use of "Happy Birthday."

But in doing so, Judge George H. King, the chief judge for the Central District of California, also dealt a big blow to the time-honored American tradition of branded birthdays songs, which are performed by unwitting servers in restaurant chains across the country. Chief Justice King ruled that Warner "[does] not own a valid copyright," in his 43-page judgement, potentially putting an end to the corporate restaurant song.


The song, originally titled "Happy Birthday to You", dates back to the late 19th century and was eventually sold to Warner/Chappell Music at an estimated value of $5 million. Under that arrangement, Warner would charge royalties to any enterprise who used the song, meaning that restaurants such as Applebee's and Chili's would technically have to pay Warner every time their staff, much to the chagrin of thousands of teenagers (and presumably servers), would burst out of the kitchen belting out the tune with a cake and sparklers.

Instead of paying royalties for every time wait staff had to sing "Happy Birthday," some juggernaut food chains opted for their own campy alternatives. This economic and legal reality created a cottage industry and cult following of tunes designed to satisfy both the clientele and the legal teams of the corporate eateries.

The results are invariably cringe-worthy on their own, and only compounded by the awkward dynamics of family birthday dinners at chain restaurants.

And while this case may mark the end of an era, it remains to be seen whether restaurant staff will embrace their new-found freedom or continue to sing the tune of corporate America. For many, the awkward birthday song ritual represents the trade-off of having a free meal surrounded by loved ones.

But regardless of which song gets sung, the new legal framework won't make the birthday eating experience any more bearable for the singers—or recipients—of these birthday songs.