Judge George H. King of the United States District Court in Los Angeles, issued 43-page decision that invalidates the copyright on the ‘Happy Birthday’ song that has been enforced by music publisher Warner/Chappell and its parent company, the Warner Music Group, since 1988 for about 2 million dollars annually in licensing fees. The court decision included a deeply researched narrative of the complex history of the song and the paper trail of copyright registrations that have followed it since it was first published in 1893. The song “Happy Birthday to You” is thought by many to be the most popular tune in the English language, and if the decision withstands future appeals, “Happy Birthday to You” will finally become part of the public domain.
“Since no one else has ever claimed to own the copyright, we believe that as a practical matter, this means the song is public property,” said Mark C. Rifkin, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The case decided was originally filed in 2013 by Jennifer Nelson, an independent filmmaker who intends to make a documentary about the song and wishes to use it royalty-free within her film.
While Judge King’ agreed that the song melody can be traced back to “Good Morning to All,” written by Mildred Hill and her sister Patty, a kindergarten teacher. The song was then registered in 1893 by the Clayton F. Summy Company and in 1935; Summy registered a version of “Happy Birthday to You.” However, Judge King also found that while Summy had published the original version of “Good Morning to All,” it never properly had rights to the birthday lyrics and “because Summy Co. never acquired the rights to the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics,” the judge wrote, “defendants, as Summy Co.’s purported successors-in-interest, do not own a valid copyright in the ‘Happy Birthday’ lyrics.”
The Plaintiff, Ms. Nelson, said in a statement: “This is a great victory for musicians, artists and people around the world who have waited decades for this. I am thrilled to be a part of the historic effort to set ‘Happy Birthday’ free and give it back to the public where it belongs.”
While the world continues to evolve toward an increasingly restrictive sense of what can be considered to be part of the public domain, it is refreshing to find out that an iconic song sung by hundreds of millions of people at birthday parties each year no longer requires a fee to be paid for its inclusion in commercial works as well. Singing it at your home would have been protected by fair use principles, but restaurants, movies, television shows and other new works will likely be enhanced by its availability without a century old claim requiring them to pay for the ability to wish people a happy birthday in the most common way currently established by our culture.