Familiar song is ruled to be part of public domain, preventing music company from collecting $2 million per year in fees.
A U.S. judge issued a ruling Tuesday that Warner/Chappel Music does not own a valid copyright to the song “Happy Birthday to You”, making the song part of the public domain.
The ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed by several artists against the music company, seeking to return millions of dollars in royalty fees the company has charged over the years for the use of the song in TV and films, according to huffingtonpost.com.
The melody was first published in 1893, after being written as “Good Morning to All”, by a Kentucky woman, Mildred Hill, and her sister Patty. Over time the lyrics were changed to the familiar birthday song we all sing now, which Patty also claimed to have written.
Warner/Chappel Music’s claim of a copyright began with the original publisher of the song, the Clayton F. Summy Company, later to become known as Birch Tree. Warner acquired Birch Tree in 1988. The Summy Company had gotten registrations for the song in 1935, according to court documents.
Use of the song at parties in individual homes was never at risk of being sued, or having to pay fees. But the song has been used many times in films and on TV, and Warner has been collecting an estimated $2 million per year in royalties and fees.
Most people were not even aware the song was still under copyright.
Randall Newman, an attorney for the artists told the Los Angeles Times, “‘Happy Birthday’ is finally free after 80 years. Finally, the charade is over. It’s unbelievable.”
U.S. District Judge George H. King said in his 43-page opinion, “Defendants ask us to find that the Hill sisters eventually gave Summy Co. the rights in the lyrics to exploit and protect, but this assertion has no support in the record. The Hill sisters gave Summy Co. the rights to the melody, and the rights to piano arrangements based on the melody, but never any rights to the lyrics.”