A United States judge ruled Tuesday that music publisher Warner/Chappell Music cannot claim it owns the copyright to the song, "Happy Birthday to You." This puts the song in the public domain so anyone can record and publish it.
The ruling comes after a class action lawsuit was filed against Warner/Chappell by multiple artists in 2013. In the case, the artists sought restitution for millions of dollars worth of fees, which they said the company unlawfully collected from them for using "Happy Birthday to You."
Judge Researched History of "Happy Birthday" Song to Decide Case
U.S. District Judge George H. King researched deep into the complicated history of "Happy Birthday to You" in order to decide the case. Apparently, the song dates back to 1893, when a melody known as "Good Morning to All" was published in a kindergarden songbook. That book was written by two Kentucky sisters named Mildred Hill and Patty Hill.
Court records indicate that, later, the Happy Birthday lyrics were applied to "Good Morning to All" and the most recognizable song in the world was born. Patty Hill claimed to have written the Happy Birthday lyrics, too.
The song's original publisher was the Clayton F. Summy Co., which later became known as Birch Tree. In 1988, Warner acquired Birch Tree. According to Warner, Summy had obtained the copyright to "Happy Birthday" in 1935, and Warner acquired the copyright along with its acquisition of the company.
In his 43-page opinion on the case, Judge George H. King stated that the defendants requested the court "to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect," but the judge said that there is nothing in the record to support the assertion. The judge ruled that the Hill sisters provided Summy Co. with the rights to piano arrangements and the melody only, and not to the lyrics.
"The Charade Is Finally Over"
An attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case issued a statement following the ruling saying, "'Happy Birthday' is finally free after 80 years... Finally, the charade is over. It's unbelievable."
Interestingly, before this ruling, Warner might have been able to enforce its rights against people singing Happy Birthday in their private gatherings and homes. Although it never tried to extract royalty fees from birthday parties, Warner did garner approximately $2 million per year in copyright royalties from the song being used in movies and for commercial purposes.
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