“Happy Birthday” is a folk song that is traditionally sung to celebrate the anniversary of a person’s birth. It is also the world’s most popular English-language song.
However, if you’ve noticed, you seldon hear it sung on on-screen. Instead, you’ll hear the cover versions or knock-off versions of “Happy Birthday” instead because filmmakers and performers risk getting a lawsuit for featuring them or singing them on-screen.
Now, everyone can sing it without facing the risk of being sued because an US federal judge ruled on Tuesday that it is free of copyright.
According to the US District Judge George H. King, Warner/Chappell Music does not hold any legal rights to enforce copyright on the folk song.
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.
It was further explained in the 43-page ruling that Warner/Chappell was only granted for specific arrangements of the music, not the song itself or its lyrics.
The original “Happy Birthday” tune was composed in 1893 by 2 sisters, Patty Smith Hill and Milred J. Hill. At the time, the song was to be sung for Patty’s kindergarten students and it was called “Good Morning To All”.
The Hill sisters later gave Summy Co., a publishing company owned by Clayton Summy, the rights to the melody and piano arrangements based on the melody. “Happy Birthday To You” was then copyrighted as a work for hire in 1935. Warner/Chappell eventually purchased the rights for $25m after they acquired Birch Tree Group Limited, a successor company to Summy, in 1988.
As a result, Warner/Chappell began enforcing the copyright and charging anyone who used the song in a film, TV episode, advertisement or other public performance. They have since made around $2m a year from royalty payments, further claiming that the US copyright will not expire until 2030.
In 2013, Jennifer Nelson, who made a documentary about the history of the song, also filed a lawsuit against Warner/Chappell. At the time, a similar case was filed by musician Rupa Marya and filmmaker Robert Siegel.
The cases were joined as the plaintiffs argued that the song was in the public domain and that the music publisher has no right to ask them to pay copyright fee of $1,500 (£970) for using “Happy Birthday To You” in their film. With a nod towards plaintiffs’ contentions in the case, the judge finally ruled that Summy never did acquire copyright to the song’s lyrics.
Regarding the case, Randall Newman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the suit, including several filmmakers, said that “Happy Birthday is finally free after 80 years”.
Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable
The next step in the case is to determine whether or not Warner/Chappell should return money they’ve collected over the years to license the song.
In response to the judge’s decision, Warner/Chappell spokesperson said, “We are looking at the court’s lengthy opinion and considering our options.”