Court rules Happy Birthday song copyright invalid

October 9, 2015 by

copyrightWarner/Chappell Music Inc. does not own a valid copyright on “Happy Birthday To You,” a California federal judge ruled Tuesday in a class action decision.

This assures that the world’s most recognizable English language song is in the public domain.

U.S. District Judge George H. King found that Warner had never acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics.  In copyright records, court records and several agreements over the use of the song, nowhere was there a discussion of the lyrics to “Happy Birthday,” according to the decision. Some records mention the melody or piano arrangement, but not the words to the song, the judge said.

Three film production companies and a California musician are the representative plaintiffs in the action alleging Warner has been collecting millions of dollars in licensing fees for the use of the song for decades based on an invalid copyright. Warner’s copyright is based on the rights the song’s composers, sisters Mildred and Patty Hill, sold to a music publisher, Summy Co., at the turn of the last century, court records show.

“Because Summy Co. never acquired the 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,” Judge King wrote. “Nowhere in the agreement is there any discussion of the Happy Birthday lyrics; nor is there any suggestion that the Hill sisters transferred their common law rights in the Happy Birthday lyrics to Summy Co.”

Judge King sifted through what the lawyers in the case have called a forest of evidence in a 43-page ruling that sided with the plaintiffs in dueling motions for summary judgment on whether Warner could hold the rights to a song that was written in the late 19th century.  The distinction between the music and lyrics as copyrightable elements was critical to the case, Judge King said. The parties agreed that the melody to the tune came from the Hill sisters’ song “Good Morning To All,” which entered the public domain years ago, court records show.

At one point, in 1935, Summy Co. had registered the song for a federal copyright, but that registration lists a different author and claims an “arrangement as easy piano solo, with text,” according to the filings.  “Obviously, pianos do not sing,” Judge King wrote in the decision.

Because the registration doesn’t list the Hills as the author and doesn’t make clear that the “Happy Birthday” lyrics were being registered, the 1935 copyright office’s records can’t determine that Summy Co. had the rights to the lyrics, the judge ruled.

The copyrights for “Happy Birthday to You” were either expired, forfeited or invalid, because they didn’t contain “original works of authorship” except for the piano arrangements, the plaintiffs claimed. Good Morning to You said it had filed suit in response to Warner/Chappell’s demand that it pay a $1,500 licensing fee to use the song in its documentary.

The case is Good Morning to You Productions Corp. et al v. Warner Chappell Music Inc. et al., case number 2:13-cv-04460, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Steve Larson
An experienced trial lawyer who handles both hourly and contingent fee cases, Steve has expertise in class actions, consumer cases, antitrust litigation, securities litigation, corporate disputes, intellectual property disputes, unfair competition claims, employment matters, and disputes involving family wealth. Steve regularly represents individuals and businesses in federal and state court and has obtained class-wide recovery in multiple class actions. A veteran practitioner, Steve's clients value his creative approach to resolving complex litigation matters.

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