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  • Writer's pictureCassandra L. Wilkinson

Federal Judge Rules that "Happy Birthday" Song is in the Public Domain

Just in time for my birthday at the end of the month, a federal judge ruled that the lyrics to “Happy Birthday to You” are in the public domain and not copyrighted by Warner/Chappell Music. U.S. District Judge George H. King ruled Tuesday that the copyright originally filed by the Clayton F. Summy Co. in 1935 granted only the rights to specific arrangements of the tune and not its lyrics.
According to court documents, the music for “Happy Birthday to You,” which was originally called “Good Morning to All,” was written by kindergarten teacher Patty Smith Hill and her sister Mildred sometime before 1893. In his ruling, Judge King went into great detail about the history of “Happy Birthday To You” and its derivation from “Good Morning to All,” noting that the origins of the modern lyrics are “less clear.” The Hill sisters assigned their rights to Summy, who copyrighted and first published the music in a 1911 book.
Warner/Chappell Music has been enforcing the copyright claim since it bought Summy’s successor, the Birch Tree Group, in 1998, and according to the lawsuit, Warner/Chappell has since earned more than $2 million a year in licensing fees. Warner/Chappell has argued that the copyright on “Happy Birthday To You” covered arrangement as well as lyrics, but in the court’s opinion, Judge King wrote, “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.”
The ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed in 2013 by filmmaker Jennifer Nelson and Good Morning To You Productions, who were working on a documentary film tentatively titled “Happy Birthday.” They were asked to pay Warner/Chappell a $1,500 fee for the song’s use, but in response, filed a lawsuit arguing that the song should be “dedicated to public use and in the public domain.” They also asked for monetary damages and restitution of more than $5 million in licensing fees that Warner/Chappell had collected from thousands of people and groups who’ve paid to use the song over the years.
In invalidating the copyright, Judge King ruled that Summy never acquired the rights to the song’s lyrics. Since the ruling means that royalties will no longer have to be paid for use of the popular song, feel “free” to sing “Happy Birthday” to me and anyone else!
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