U.S. judge rules copyright for ‘Happy Birthday’ invalid

U.S. judge rules that Warner Music Group does not has a valid copyright to the "Happy Birthday" song, lawyer says the world has been waiting "a long time." (Photo captured from Reuters video)
U.S. judge rules that Warner Music Group does not has a valid copyright to the “Happy Birthday” song, lawyer says the world has been waiting “a long time.” (Photo captured from Reuters video)

A U.S. judge on Tuesday (September 22) ruled that Warner/Chappell Music does not own a valid copyright to one of the world’s most recognizable songs, “Happy Birthday to You,” a decision that brings the song into the public domain.

The highly-anticipated ruling comes in a putative class-action lawsuit filed by several artists against Warner/Chappell, the music publishing arm of Warner Music Group, over the song in 2013 seeking a return of the millions of dollars in fees the company has collected over the years.

In order to make his ruling, U.S. District Judge George H. King had to delve into the song’s long and complicated history, which began in 1893 with the publication of a melody called “Good Morning to All” in a kindergarten songbook, written by a Kentucky woman named Mildred Hill and her sister, Patty.

That melody eventually came to be sung with the familiar Happy Birthday lyrics, which Patty also claimed to have written, according to court records.

Warner’s copyright originated with the Hill sisters’ publisher, the Clayton F. Summy Co, later known as Birch Tree and acquired by Warner in 1988. Summy had obtained registrations to “Happy Birthday” in 1935, according to court papers.

“Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record,” King wrote in his 43-page opinion.

“The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics,” he added.

Warner could not be immediately reached for comment.

“We were able to convince the court that all they owned were copyrights in two old piano arrangements written in the 1930s, but not the song itself,” Mark Rifkin said in New York on Wednesday (September 23), an attorney for the artists including filmmakers working on a documentary about the song.

“So Judge King entered an order yesterday granting summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, declaring that Warner does not own a copyright to ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ The world has been waiting a long time for somebody to resolve the ownership of the copyright. It’s been an open dispute for decades and we’re just thrilled to be part of the effort to end that whole long period of history.”

The case garnered attention from around the world not only because the tune is so commonly performed, but because many were not aware it was still under copyright, let alone purportedly owned by a major corporation.

Rifkin says the next steps is plaintiffs’ chance to ask the court to order Warner to pay back everybody who has had to pay to use the song previously.

“There’s an estimate that Warner collects about $2 million (USD) a year for the song and so we’re going to ask the court to go back at least to 1988 when Warner bought the music publisher that originally claimed to own the song, so that’s almost 30 years, so that’s almost $60 million before interest, so it’s a pretty significant amount of money,” he said.

People who sing Happy Birthday in their homes or at private gatherings have typically never been at risk of a lawsuit. But when the song has been used for commercial purposes, such as in films, Warner has enforced its rights, and takes in an estimated $2 million in royalties for such uses each year.