In a highly anticipated ruling today, one of the world’s most recognisable songs, ‘Happy Birthday to You’, has been brought into the public domain after US District Judge George H King ruled Warner/Chappell Music did not own a valid copyright to the song.
Two years ago Warner/Chappell, the music-publishing arm of Warner Music Group, had a class action lawsuit filed against it by several artists. Brought in 2013, these artists claimed that ‘Happy Birthday’ was not under copyright and should be free for anyone to use.
Under the ruling, ‘Happy Birthday to You’ is no longer subject to copyright and artists seeking to publically perform it no longer need to pay a licence fee to use it.
Originally written by sisters Patty and Mildred Hill, the song has been the subject of numerous copyright claims over the years. Accordingly, District Judge King examined the song’s long history finding that the copyright originated with the Hill sisters’ publisher, the Clayton F Summy Co, later known as Birch Tree, which was acquired by Warner in 1988. Summy Co. obtained registrations to ‘Happy Birthday’ in 1935 according to documents filed with the Court.
In the 43 page ruling District Judge King stated:
“Because Summy Co. never acquired 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.”
Whilst those who have the song sung at private birthday gatherings have rarely been at risk of a lawsuit, whenever the song is used for commercial purposes Warner has enforced its copyright rights. It is estimated they have taken $2 million in royalties each year.
For a full link of the ruling, please see: