‘Happy Birthday to You’ finally becomes public domain as Warner/Chappel stripped of copyright

© Ethan Miller
A surprise decision by a federal judge in Los Angeles says the famous song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is not owned by any corporation, meaning anyone is allowed to sing or perform it without the fear of breaking copyright rules.

The ruling was made during a lawsuit that fought to include the song in the public domain, challenging Warner/Chappell’s attempts to fine a group of filmmakers $1,500 for the use of the song. The decision by the LA judge will mean the cooperation will lose out on around $2 million in royalties per year.

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The music to the ‘Happy Birthday’ song is believed to have been composed by a pair of sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill, in around 1893. The two gave the rights to Clayton F. Summy Co, which was eventually bought by Warner Music Group in 1998, according to the lawsuit.

Federal judge George H. King announced the ruling on Tuesday, stating that copyright of the Clayton F. Summy Co. only applied to the various piano arrangements and not the lyrics.

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the Happy Birthday lyrics, Defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics,” King wrote in his decision.

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King concluded that it is not certain that Patty Hill wrote the lyrics to the ‘Happy Birthday’ song or that the Hill sisters made a legal claim to the lyrics or that the sisters gave the rights to the lyrics to Summy Co.

"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/Chappell has been collecting royalties for the song and receiving in excess of $2 million a year. The corporation was convinced it owned the legal rights to the lyrics.

“We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options,” AP quoted the company’s statement as saying.

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Meanwhile, the attorney for the plaintiffs, Mark Rifkin, said they were very pleased with the ruling. “We look forward to moving forward with the rest of the case, in which we will ask the court to order Warner/Chappell to return all the money it has wrongfully collected under a claim of copyright ownership,” he said.

The decision has been largely welcomed by many, who believe it was ridiculous to consider copyrighting the world famous song.

However, not everyone is happy. A small movement called unhappybirthday.com [ LINK http://www.unhappybirthday.com/ ], is campaigning for the issue to be raised with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and eventually with Congress. They say they will bombard the ASCAP watchdog with “copyright infringement” complaints even when the birthday greeting song is sung in public.