Judge Rules Copyright Invalid for “Happy Birthday to You”

Editor’s Note: This article references several quotes from various publications, which are cited with links to the full articles.

BY SUSAN FONTAINE GODWIN: People are often incredulous when I tell them that the traditional “Happy Birthday to You” song is copyrighted. It appears that their unbelief is on solid ground. After more than two years of legal disputes, U.S. District Judge George H. King (Federal Judge of Central California District) ruled Tuesday that Warner/Chappell “do not own a valid copyright in the Happy Birthday lyrics.”

Tuesday’s opinion (read here) rejects Warner/Chappell’s argument that a copyright in the song’s lyrics entitles them to a valid copyright, with the judge noting that it isn’t particularly clear whether the registration included the lyrics. Furthermore, the ruling establishes that rights never properly transferred.

Controversy has surrounded the song, “Happy Birthday to You,” for many years and with good reason, and this recent legal dispute represents one of the more complex copyright cases in recent history. People were often shocked to find out that the popular birthday tune was , in fact, a copyrighted composition that required licensing and royalty payments in order to use it. This does not apply to singing the song in a family setting, or “non-public” scenario, but it does impact public performances of the song as well as the rights to reproduce the composition.

Warner had been collecting royalties on the song since the 1980s when it bought Birch Tree Group, the successor to Clayton F. Summy Co., which claimed the original copyright. It is estimated that Warner/Chappell has made about $2 million a year in royalties from the song. By one estimate, the song is the highest earning single song in history, with estimated earnings since its creation of $50 million. (Mohan, Isabel (December 29, 2012). “The Richest Songs in the World, BBC Four, Review”The Telegraph (London). Retrieved September 23,2015.)

A group of filmmakers sued the song’s owner, Warner/Chappell in 2013 arguing that the melody has been in the public domain for more than 65 years, and that nobody knows who wrote the familiar “Happy Birthday” lyrics, but since the public was singing those lyrics in the early 1900s, before the copyrights were registered, the song had become a public work.  

It is reported that Warner demands as much as six figures to license the tune, but now filmmakers and producers will no longer have to pay to feature “Happy Birthday” in motion pictures and television shows.

The original melody for the song was created by sisters Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill in 1893, but the song title was “Good Morning to All,” and the song served as classroom greeting song for kindergartners (both sisters were kindergarten teachers). According to an article Los Angeles Times by Christine Mae-Duc, a third of the profits from licensing the song still go to a designated charity of the Hill family, the Association for Childhood Education International, which promotes global education efforts for children and the professional growth of educators. The association’s 2012 nonprofit tax return, the most recent available, indicates it received $754,108 in royalties.

Good Morning To You Productions Corp., a New York film company, says it is making a documentary about the song. They were seeking to have the court declare the song to be in the public domain, and to block the publisher from claiming it owns the copyright to the song and charging licensing fees for its use. The class action suit states that Warner “should be compelled to return the millions of dollars of unlawful licensing fees that they have collected by wrongfully asserted copyright ownership…”

According to the Times:

Until now, Warner has asked for royalties from anyone who wanted to sing or play “Happy Birthday to You” — with the lyrics — as part of a profit-making enterprise. Royalties were most often collected from stage productions, television shows, movies or greeting cards. But even those who wanted to sing the song publicly as part of a business, say a restaurant owner giving out free birthday cake to patrons, technically had to pay to use the song, prompting creative renditions at chain eateries trying to avoid paying royalties.

“‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years,” Randall Newman, lawyer for the plaintiffs, told the Times. “Finally the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”

Warner/Chappell is looking at the court’s opinion and exploring options, a company spokesman told The Hollywood Reporter. Warner could still appeal King’s decision, but it will have to ask the judge to permit an appeal to go forward.

What does the ruling mean for the general public? In brief, anyone may use the song freely without licensing or payment of royalties. Judge King ruled that the original copyright filed by the Summy Co. in 1935 granted only rights to certain arrangements of the music, but not to the song, the Times reports.

CCS’s Founder and CVO, Susan Fontaine Godwin is an educator and long-time member of the Christian arts community with 30 years of experience in the Christian media industry, church copyright administration and copyright management. Susan is an author and speaker and frequently writes for several Christian magazines and online publications. She serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Mobile.

About Christian Copyright Solutions: CCS’s quest is to help churches and Christian ministries “do music right.”  CCS is an expert on church music copyrights and our primary focus is providing licensing and clear educational resources to churches, as well as representation, administration and advocacy for copyright owners. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.  The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel.