Los Angeles – The world’s most popular English language song, “Happy Birthday,” is now fully in the public domain if a recent federal judge’s ruling stands. This issue came to court in 2013 when Good Morning to You Productions Corp. filed a class action lawsuit against Warner/Chappell Music, arguing its copyright for the song was invalid.
Good Morning to You Productions is a company owned by independent documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson. She was working on a documentary about the song’s history when Warner/Chappell Music charged her $1,500 to use the song. Nelson argued the song should not be under copyright restrictions, and proceeded to file a lawsuit.
The history of the song dates back to 1893, when kindergarten teacher Patty Hill wrote a song with her sister. The lyrics centered around the phrase, “good morning to you,” and used a melody simple enough for her students to easily sing along. The sisters gave the copyright to the Summy Company and it was published in a song book.
In the 20th century, the melody the sisters wrote started using the now famous happy birthday lyrics, though the author(s) of these lyrics were unknown. Summy Co. received a copyright for a version of the happy birthday song in 1935.
Warner/Chappell became the owner of the copyright in 1988, when it acquired Summy’s successor Birchtree Ltd. Since then, Warner/Chappell has collected $2 million annually in licensing fees. A portion of these fees went to a charity chosen by the Hill family, the Association for Childhood Education International.
Federal judge George H. King of the United States District Court in Los Angeles, ruled, “The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to the piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.” As a result, the copyright Warner/Chappell Music used to collect licensing fees, including the fee it charged to Nelson, was ruled invalid.
In a statement after the ruling, Warner/Chappell Music stated they are examining the court’s opinion and considering their options.
The plaintiffs argue the company should return the licensing fees they received since at least 1988, but they have also said that they may ask the company to return royalties collected even before then.
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